Turns out the Senate can make an exception to the filibuster if it wants to

“Lawmakers voted 50-49 to raise the debt limit by $2.5 trillion, a figure that’s expected to tide the government over until after the midterm elections next fall. Every one to two years, it’s vital for the US to address the debt ceiling to cover past spending and make sure the government doesn’t default; if it did, it would likely have catastrophic economic consequences globally.

Interestingly, the resolution succeeded because it did not require 60 votes to clear a filibuster in the Senate after lawmakers passed a bill last Thursday granting a one-time exception to the rule.

The deal to suspend the filibuster was bipartisan; leaders of both parties have hesitated to make exceptions to the filibuster, a procedural rule requiring a Senate supermajority to pass legislation, if it gets blocked by the opposition. Senators were willing to make an exception in this case, for two reasons.

One, it enabled Democrats to approve the debt limit resolution on their own, with no Republican support. Republicans wanted to withhold their votes in hopes of weaponizing Democrats’ vote to raise the debt ceiling in future campaigns. Two, the deal allowed a vote to be held quickly, narrowly avoiding the December 15 default deadline calculated by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

This last-minute deal enabled lawmakers to avert a debt default and massive economic crisis while overcoming a partisan impasse on the subject. For some Democrats, too, it revealed that exceptions to the filibuster are possible — and an option lawmakers should consider for other bills.”

“The debt ceiling vote has opened the door to questions of whether Democrats would consider filibuster exceptions for other bills, like voting rights protections. Activists, and some Democratic lawmakers, have called for this in recent months amid failures to advance voting rights protections, police reform, and a $15 minimum wage due to GOP opposition in the Senate. But a filibuster exemption for policy changes is likely to be difficult to secure.

This time around, Democrats were only able to get an exception because it was for something Republicans actually wanted. Though there was enough GOP opposition to raising the debt limit that getting 60 Senate votes was in doubt, Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not want the US to default. Those leaders made sure the exception passed for the good of the domestic and global economy. Without Republican support, Democrats likely wouldn’t be able to approve another exception in this same way.

That leaves Democrats with another challenging option: banding together for a rules change. Those sorts of modifications can be done by majority vote. But that would require the support of all 50 Democratic caucus members, which party leaders don’t currently have. Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) have staunchly opposed such changes thus far.

Still, this development has made it clear lawmakers do have another option to consider for bills that can’t pass via budget reconciliation, and has set a recent precedent for such carveouts. Now that it’s been done once, expect to hear calls to do it again. In fact, this filibuster carveout has sparked new conversation about how else this tactic could be used.”

The Perverse Incentives of Puerto Rico’s Debt Deal

“While Puerto Rico has failed to make debt service payments since 2017, government spending is up over 12 percent since then despite a drastic population decrease. Long says Puerto Rican officials are realizing “how easy it is to hide financial data, pretend austerity, and fool their creditors.” For its part, she adds, the U.S. government is creating all the incentives for Puerto Rico “to become a serial defaulter, like Argentina,” a country on the brink of its tenth default since 1816.

The comparison is ominous; Argentina’s longstanding practice of acquiring heaps of debt on the global markets before failing to repay it reflects the workings of its internal politics. As scholars Pablo Spiller (of the University of California, Berkeley) and Mariano Tomassi (of the Universidad San Andrés in Argentina) wrote in 2007, Argentina’s brand of federalism combines decentralized spending for the provinces with largely centralized tax collection and funding schemes. The system, which began to arise in the late 19th century, still motivates “subnational governments [to] adopt a lax fiscal stance in the expectation that they will be bailed out in the event of a fiscal crisis.”

In turn, they write, the top regional politicians tend to be the crony machine operators “who are best at the game of extracting rents from the common central pool.” Similarly, negotiating rescue packages with the International Monetary Fund has become a part of an Argentine president’s unofficial job description. Will governors of Puerto Rico assume the same role vis-à-vis the White House and Congress?

Certainly, U.S. taxpayers should consider the long-term consequences of their bailout of Puerto Rico, where children of politicians tend to be overrepresented as recipients of six-figure government salaries and seven-figure government contracts. The habitual debt busts of Buenos Aires is one Latin American export that is better left on the dock.”

Inflation Will Make Government Budget Problems Worse

“inflation is real. The all-item consumer price index (CPI) was up more than 5 percent on a year-over-year basis for July, August, and September, and now shows a 6.2 percent increase for October—the largest jump since 1990. The Fed considers 2 percent inflation to be its bright-line monetary policy goal. Obviously, there is a large gap between that and what we are seeing on the ground.”

“Individuals whose salaries, wages, Social Security payments, and even mortgage interest or rental rates are automatically adjusted for inflation have much less to worry about than their neighbors on fixed salaries, who must cope with ballooning grocery bills or pay twice as much at the pump. On these grounds, inflation may be devastating for some and almost meaningless for others. These gaps widen as inflation gets worse.”

“The rate of inflation gets captured in interest rates that borrowers must pay, especially for longer-term debt. Lenders hope to be paid back with at least as much purchasing power. If they believe inflation will tick away at 4 percent, interest rates tend to rise with this baked-in expectation.
In any case, higher interest rates mean higher interest costs on all forms of public and private debt. As a result, mortgage rates will rise, all forms of construction will suffer, and businesses will postpone making large investments in plants and equipment.

Now consider the public debt—especially the federal debt that ballooned from large deficits in recent years. (In 2020, federal revenues were $3.4 trillion and spending was $6.6 trillion.) The interest cost of the national debt in 2008 was $253 billion and remained at about that level through 2015. Even though the debt doubled in those years, sharply falling interest rates and low inflation worked to contain costs.

But that was yesterday. With today’s higher inflation and rising interest rates (perhaps with more to come), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the interest cost of public debt to be $413 billion in 2021. Obviously, any dollar spent on interest cannot be spent on government benefits and services to taxpayers.”

40 Years of Trillion-Dollar Debt

“Rising costs of entitlement programs and the interest on the debt itself are the primary reasons why the debt will keep growing. In other words, even cutting a lot of discretionary spending would have little effect on the debt at this point.

The guilty parties are, well, both parties. It was fitting that the debt hit the symbolic $1 trillion figure during Reagan’s presidency, as the Gipper ignored his own warning. Republicans have spent much of the past 40 years venerating Reagan as an icon of conservative values, including supposedly limited government. And while his successors ran up far larger amounts on the nation’s credit card, Reagan saw the government surpass not only the $1 trillion debt threshold but also the $2 trillion threshold.”

“The guiding principle for today’s Democratic Party is the idea that debt doesn’t really matter if interest rates remain low. So long as the cost of servicing the federal debt stays below 2 percent, policymakers should not be restrained by the “traditional idea of a cyclically balanced budget,” Larry Summers, Clinton’s treasury secretary, and former Obama economic adviser Jason Furman argued in an influential paper published last year.

But the past 40 years would suggest that lawmakers have almost never been restrained by the idea of balanced budgets—a few brief interludes of fiscal sanity notwithstanding.

It took nearly two centuries for America to accumulate $1 trillion in public debt. It took 40 years to increase that amount 28 times over. If we refuse to address the breakneck speed at which America spends money it doesn’t have, how long until Clinton’s warning is realized, and that debt deals with us?

Biden Says $3.5 Trillion Reconciliation Bill Has a Price Tag of ‘Zero.’ That’s Dubious.

“The federal government hasn’t fully paid for its normal, run-of-the-mill spending in a single year since 2001. If you believe the projections of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), there is not a single year in the next 30 (the longest length of time for which the office projects spending and revenue) in which the budget will balance. Despite that, lawmakers from both parties continue to peddle this line whenever they want to make big policy changes. Democrats promised that Obamacare would be revenue-neutral. It hasn’t been. Republicans promised the Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves. They didn’t.

Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to play this game, and President Joe Biden has dutifully stepped up to the plate. Speaking Friday about the combination infrastructure package and budget reconciliation bills that the House may vote on sometime this week, the president declared that anyone worried about the latter legislation’s $3.5 trillion price tag should calm down.

“We talk about price tags. It is zero price tag on the debt,” Biden said. “We are going to pay for everything we spend.””

“Democrats are proposing to pay for their $3.5 trillion reconciliation package with about $2.3 trillion of tax increases and $700 billion in savings from changing how Medicare and Medicaid purchase pharmaceutical drugs. The rest is written off as being paid for with future economic growth—the idea being that increases in government spending will cause more hiring and greater economic activity, which will cause future tax collections to be higher than projected.

It’s a little bit like saying that your drinking habit can pay for itself, as Reason’s Peter Suderman has explained.

The math doesn’t add up. In order to achieve the amount of “dynamic scoring” necessary to offset that last $600 billion or so of new spending, the reconciliation bill would have to boost America’s economic output by about 3.5 percent by 2031. That’s far in excess of what every independent assessment of the package says it will do. In fact, at least one assessment of the package says the bill’s tax increases and borrowing will more than cancel out the benefits of heightened spending, dragging growth lower.

The debate over those projections is pretty esoteric. But regardless of which forecast you believe, there’s no getting around the fact that some of the lawmakers now championing the magic of “dynamic scoring” used to be quite skeptical of it. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee—the very committee that put together the details of the reconciliation bill over the past few weeks—blasted Republicans for relying on “dynamic scoring” to make it look like the Trump tax cuts would balance over the long-term. In the Senate, meanwhile, Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) used to call dynamic scoring a “gimmick” meant to “conceal” the real cost of legislation. Now, he’s fine with using it because Republicans did it first.

If hypocrisy could be taxed, maybe we’d be able to balance the budget.”

“That isn’t the only dubious assumption behind Biden’s promise that everything will be fully paid for. It doesn’t fully account for the long-term budget impact of the newly expanded child tax credit, which allows Congress to claim $700 billion in “savings” that are unlikely to materialize. The reconciliation bill also calls for boosting IRS enforcement in the hopes of generating $239 billion in revenue from taxes that are currently going uncollected. That is likely an overestimation, as the CBO says the provisions would generate no more than $120 billion from increased tax compliance.”

“If the bill is truly paid for, Democrats in Congress should prove as much by asking the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation to provide a detailed analysis of the “dynamic scoring” promises contained in the reconciliation bill. Without that, argues Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, Democrats’ claims that higher spending will generate sufficient economic growth have no hard backup.

“There is no magic money tree in Washington,” Edwards says. “Rather, taxpayers will ultimately pay for the spending through current tax increases, debt and future tax increases, and inflation.””

Democrats Are Denying Basic Economics

“The simplest way to understand economics is that it is a reckoning with unavoidable tradeoffs. If you spend money on something, you may obtain something in return—but you lose the ability to use those resources on something else. In the world of politics, economics helps us weigh the merits of those tradeoffs. It answers the question: Do the benefits of a policy outweigh the costs? Sometimes the benefits are larger. Sometimes they are meager or even nonexistent. But there are always costs. To acknowledge this is merely to acknowledge reality.”

“White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to a question about the tax impact of the $3.5 trillion spending plan now working its way through Congress by declaring that “there are some…who argue that in the past companies have passed on these costs to consumers…we feel that that’s unfair and absurd and the American people would not stand for that.”
When taxes are raised on corporations—the “companies” in Psaki’s response—corporations often respond by passing that tax on to others. In some cases, they pass costs to consumers. In others, as the Cato Institute’s Scott Lincicome wryly notes on Twitter, they reduce the amount they would have otherwise spent on wages. They have to pay more to do business, and so they make adjustments accordingly. Costs create consequences and tradeoffs.

Empirical research has consistently shown that a large portion of corporate tax increases is actually paid by labor down the line. There are some reasonable academic debates about the precise percentage of the tax paid by labor, and how that might change under certain circumstances. But there is little real debate about whether or not some of the costs are passed on. The point is that it happens. Workers, not owners, pay at least some share of higher corporate taxes.”

What Americans Think About The Fight Over The Debt Ceiling

“it’s likely that many Americans don’t understand what the debt ceiling is or what raising it entails. Consider the high share of respondents who said they were unsure in The Economist/YouGov’s survey. Part of what’s tricky here is the debt ceiling refers to debt and financial obligations the U.S. has already accrued — such as interest on the country’s debt or previously authorized spending, like Social Security benefits. That is, the debt limit is not a tool that authorizes new spending, as such expenditures are decided in completely separate legislation, like a bill for the next federal budget.”

“past polls back up the idea that many people don’t grasp what it is or what the risks are if it’s not increased. In a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, for instance, 42 percent of Americans correctly responded that a higher debt ceiling allowed the country to pay interest on its debt and spending that’s already been authorized, but 39 percent mistakenly said that the debt ceiling directly increased government spending and the amount of debt the U.S. holds. This survey also found plenty of uncertainty, as 20 percent said they weren’t sure what raising the debt ceiling meant. A poll by the Washington Post/Pew Research Center from 2011 — when the debt-ceiling debate was particularly fraught — also reflected a misunderstanding of the consequences of raising or not raising the debt limit. In the poll, more Americans were worried about what would happen if the debt ceiling was raised than if it wasn’t: 48 percent were more concerned that raising the debt ceiling would lead to more spending and debt, while 35 percent were more worried that not raising the cap would force a debt default and cause economic harm.”

Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Get the Point of the Debt Limit

“The idea of a “limit” or “ceiling” on the public debt sounds like an important constraint on borrowing, the kind of thing the Constitution demands to keep a runaway White House in check. In reality, it’s a 20th century innovation, originally intended to give more, not less, authority to the president. A measure born of necessity during World War I and World War II to allow the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations greater leeway in financing government operations has evolved into a partisan noose.

Understanding the origins of the debt limit places into sharp focus how radical its current weaponization really is.

The U.S. government has always borrowed money to finance its operations. The total amount of outstanding debt hovered below $100 million in the years prior to 1860 but rose to over $2.7 billion during the Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, it stood at roughly $2 billion, a figure that more or less remained steady until World War I, when military mobilization necessitated a wave of borrowing, causing the national debt to balloon to $27 billion.

Less important than how much the government owed was the mechanism by which it raised debt. Prior to World War I, Congress authorized specific debt issuances. During the Civil War the legislative branch passed several bills permitting the Treasury Department to sell bonds at specific maturities and coupons. One popular issuance were 5-and-20s, which paid 6 percent annual interest over a 20-year maturity date, with an option allowing the government to redeem the face value after five years. Hundreds of thousands of Northern citizens purchased the government paper in a show of patriotic fervor. Generally speaking, new debt authorizations were earmarked for specific purposes — for instance, Panama Canal bonds, which could be used only to finance construction of the historic commercial passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Until World War I, the Treasury Department enjoyed little leeway in rolling over or consolidating existing issuances, devising the terms of new debt offerings or moving funds between one committed stream and another. Congress largely dictated the terms; the Treasury Department’s principal role was to market and administer public debt instruments. This disparate system worked well enough when government borrowing remained at modest levels, but during World War I, the sharp spike in borrowing and spending made the old system impractical. The Wilson administration needed flexibility to raise and commit money for war production. In response to this reality, Congress for the first time set aggregate levels of debt financing and granted the Treasury Department more freedom to move money where it was needed. It was the origin of what we know today as the debt ceiling, though specific issuances — for instance, Liberty Loans — still retained their own statutory limits.

Beginning in 1941 the system evolved further, when Congress passed the first of a series of Public Debt Acts that both raised (on several occasions) the overall debt ceiling and consolidated all borrowing authority under the Treasury Department. Going forward, different departments and agencies borrowed what they needed from Treasury, which in turn issued, managed and marketed debt within the statutory limit. It’s effectively how things work today. “

Medical debt was cut nearly in half in states that expanded Medicaid

“The Affordable Care Act offered states a huge infusion of federal money to expand Medicaid eligibility to low-income adults, and about 30 states took that deal right away in 2014. Since then, new medical debt in those states has fallen 44 percent, a dramatically bigger drop than was seen in the states that refused to expand the program over the same period. Those states showed only a 10 percent decline.”

“nonmedical debt had fallen by similar amounts in expansion and non-expansion states over the time period they studied, 2009 to 2020, strengthening the case that Medicaid expansion was the difference with medical debt.”

“In states that expanded Medicaid, both the lowest- and highest-income groups saw their medical debt drop after expansion, but the amount of medical debt added annually decreased much more for the former (by $180, from $458 to $278) than the latter (by $35, from $95 to $60).
In non-expansion states, on the other hand, the lowest-income group averaged a $206 average increase in new medical debt, from $630 to $836. But the highest-income bracket still saw a small decline in new debt for medical care.”

“Those states are concentrated in the South. Eight of the 12 non-expansion states are in the region. Nearly one in four Southerners have some medical debt in collections listed on their credit report, compared to 10.8 percent of people in the Northeast and 12.7 percent in the West.”