The U.S. Credit Rating Just Dropped. It’s Time for Radical Budget Reform.

“Fitch Ratings..downgraded the U.S. government’s credit rating due in part to Congress’ erosion in governance. Indeed, year after year, we see the same political theater unfold: last-minute deals, deficits, and, all too often, the passage of gigantic omnibus spending bills without proper scrutiny, along with repeated debt ceiling fights and threats of shutdown.
But these are just symptoms of a budget-making process that remains in desperate need of reform. With legislators chronically delinquent about following their own rules, the change may need to be as much cultural as procedural. No matter how good the rules are, they’re useless if politicians ignore them. And in a world where politicians are rarely told no when it comes to creating or expanding programs, most simply refuse to have their hands tied or behave as responsible stewards of your dollars.”

“What we need is a comprehensive budget process under which programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are no longer permitted to grow without meaningful oversight. Combined with other mandatory, more-or-less automatic spending items, they make up more than 70 percent of the budget. Thus, they must be included in the regular budget process and subjected to regular review. Only then will our elected representatives be forced to stop ignoring the side of the budget that requires their attention the most.”

“Enter a “Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC)”-style fiscal commission, an idea promoted by the Cato Institute’s Romina Boccia. This commission would be staffed with independent experts appointed by the president. It would be “tasked with a clear and attainable objective, such as stabilizing the growth in the debt at no more than the GDP of the country, and empowered with fast-track authority, such that its recommendations become self-executing upon presidential approval, without Congress having to affirmatively vote on their enactment,” Boccia explains.

I’m uneasy about delegating the president power to appoint “experts.” Unfortunately, Congress has proven they will never seriously address the problem unless forced to. The idea is not unprecedented. Congress has already delegated a lot of its legislative power to administrative agencies and the executive branch. It’s also how the political class dealt with the closures of military facilities after the Cold War—another set of hard choices they refused to make on their own.

What’s more, Congress would retain some veto power. If they disapprove of the proposal, the House and Senate can reject it through a joint resolution within a specified period. Whether it’s the best solution to address our fiscal problems remains to be seen, but it’s worth considering.”

“Making continuing appropriations automatic in case of a lapse could remove the threat of shutdowns.”

The biggest policy changes in the debt ceiling deal, explained

“The deal negotiated by the Biden White House and House Republicans cuts some domestic programs in 2024 and limits spending growth to 1 percent in fiscal year 2025. That will still amount to a cut, after accounting for inflation.

Almost two-thirds of the $6 trillion federal budget is mandatory spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that will happen without any action by Congress. The rest is determined by Congress, and that is the bucket that will be affected by the debt limit deal.

The cuts are going to land disproportionately on programs that help the poor and on administration, which also affects the people who rely on government programs. Some discretionary spending — on the military and for veterans — is actually going to increase. But the rest, including funding for child care, low-income housing, the national parks, and more, will be subject to a cut for the next two years.

The exact cuts are supposed to be set by legislation that Congress will pass later this year. Should lawmakers fail to pass those spending bills, automatic spending cuts of 1 percent across the board would occur instead. (The incentive for Congress to pass the spending bills is that these automatic cuts would include the military, which all parties involved want to exempt.)”

“while this cut is shallower than the automatic cuts of the last decade, it applies to programs that already have been feeling the squeeze: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spending for discretionary domestic programs (excluding veterans’ health care) is 10 percent below 2010 levels when adjusted for inflation and increases in the US population.
The long-running neglect has led to shortages in the services they provide. Child care assistance has fallen for the better part of two decades. The primary grant program served 373,000 more children in 2006, even though now there are an additional 1 million American children living in poverty. Likewise, 3 out of 4 US families that should be eligible for federal housing assistance don’t actually receive any aid because there is no funding available. Cuts to the Social Security Administration have been going on for years, while wait times for assistance have been increasing. Investments in water infrastructure have been stagnant, even after clean water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi.”

“TANF, meanwhile, was created by the 1996 welfare reform law, replacing a program that offered guaranteed cash for low-income parents with a block grant giving $16.5 billion annually to states to spend on anti-poverty programs (though in practice the money is used for all manner of things). Because its appropriation has never been adjusted for inflation over its 27 years of existence, the program has effectively been cut in half over time, and now only about 21 percent of poor families with children get help from it.”

“The biggest surprise of the deal might be its approval of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will carry natural gas from West Virginia to southern Virginia.

The pipeline, held up for years by federal lawsuits, has long been a top priority for Sen. Joe Manchin. But the pipeline’s role in debt ceiling talks largely flew under the radar. The deal would give a green light to outstanding permits for the pipeline and shields its construction from court intervention, to the frustration of environmentalists worried about the pipeline’s impact on rural and low-income areas and the 1,000 streams and wetlands along its way.

There are a few other modest changes to permitting for energy projects in the deal, mostly affecting the bedrock 1970s-era environmental protection law, the National Environmental Policy Act. It sets a one-year deadline for agencies to complete an environmental assessment, and a two-year deadline for the more thorough environmental impact statement, an expensive review requiring community input. (Progressives argue that, rather than time limits, federal agencies need more staffing to complete reviews quickly.)”

9 questions about the debt ceiling, answered

“The US government doesn’t have to work this way.
Congress could pass legislation doing away with the debt ceiling, and the president has options to ignore it as well, though they’d likely prompt legal challenges. As mentioned above, the president could invoke the 14th Amendment and ignore the debt limit, or Congress could approve an increase to the debt cap that’s so high it basically nullifies the ceiling.

Abolishing the debt limit altogether would prevent either party from using this process as political leverage. Doing so would greatly reduce the uncertainty that comes around every time there’s a deadline like this and prevent significant market volatility that results.

“There are zero downsides to getting rid of the debt ceiling,” said Bivens from the Economic Policy Institute.

Other economic experts note that eliminating the debt ceiling could take away an opportunity for Congress to debate fiscal policy. But many feel like that’s a moot point, given debt ceiling standoffs are rarely about any specific spending anymore, but rather about weakening the party in power.”

The Debt Ceiling Fight Is a Reminder of America’s Dire Fiscal Future

“The debt ceiling standoff has people concerned about what will happen if the U.S. defaults on its debt. I certainly hope both sides will come together to avoid this outcome. But it is still worth reminding everyone how incredibly precarious the status quo is, and why something needs to change.
You’ve heard the warnings about our debt levels, to the point where they might be easy to tune out. I make these all the time. When assessing how much we should worry, it’s wise to look both at our current situation and where we’re heading. This year, our budget deficit will likely be $1.4 trillion. What’s more, the deficit will reach about $2.8 trillion in 2033. And that’s assuming peace, prosperity, relatively low interest rates, no new spending, and that some provisions of the 2017 tax cuts will expire as scheduled.

That’s $20 trillion in new borrowing over 10 years. So far, Uncle Sam has “only” accumulated $31 trillion in debt over the course of our entire history. But it gets worse fast. Congressional Budget Office projections show that the federal government will accumulate about $114 trillion in deficits over the next 30 years, which would place our debt at nearly 200 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Most of this predicted shortfall is due to Social Security and Medicare. Together these programs will consume 11.5 percent of GDP by 2035.

This is a lot of borrowing. In theory, it might not lead to a debt crisis if the government can find people to buy the debt at low rates or Congress develops a serious plan to repay it. Yet even assuming the best case scenario, borrowing like this has a cost. Debt is a drag on economic growth, which means less tax revenue to pay it off.

A large debt also means higher interest payments. We already spend more on interest payments than on Medicaid, and 17.4 percent of our revenue goes toward interest payments. These payments will balloon to $1.5 trillion, or 22 percent of federal revenue, by 2033. Within 30 years, interest payments will consume half of all tax revenues. By then a lot of the spending that people like will be crowded out.

Even these estimates are rosy. They don’t take into consideration the inflation that could result from all this debt accumulation. Most of our debt has a maturity of less than four years. As Congress gives up on controlling debt, once-confident investors might worry that the Fed will stabilize the debt with inflation. History provides some examples, and today’s debt-to-GDP has fallen since the pandemic in part due to inflation. Investors, sooner rather than later, could demand higher interest rates as an inflation premium.

Research confirms the impact of debt on long-term interest rates. Every percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio is associated with an increase of three basis points (0.03 percent) of the long-term real interest rate. So, if the debt ratio rises by 100 percent over the next 30 years, it will put upward pressure on interest rates of about three percentage points.

Because of the dollar’s unique role in the global economy, the United States may have more legroom than other countries. Still, it’s wise to worry that if the debt-to-GDP ratio rises from 94 percent to roughly 200 percent in three decades, we could face some serious interest rate hikes.

If interest rates rise by just one percentage point, that will add $3 trillion in interest payments over 10 years, on top of the $10 trillion we’re already scheduled to pay. That’s an additional $30 trillion over 30 years. Add a few more interest rate hikes and soon all your tax revenue is consumed by interest payments, not to mention the negative impact these rate hikes can have on the larger American economy.

A better question is this: Is it credible to bet on investors agreeing to buy $114 trillion in debt over the next 30 years? China and Japan have already reduced their holdings of American bonds, while the Fed already holds 25 percent of our debt. It’s unclear that domestic investors will step up to the plate. What happens then? Taxes can only be raised so much. Under the current tax system, on average, the United States has raised about 18 percent of GDP in tax revenue. But in 30 years, spending will be 30 percent of GDP.

My hope is that if you’ve read this far, you now understand that Congress should start working diligently to stop our debt from growing. No side is going to like what’s required, but it must be done. And the longer we wait, the more painful it will be.”

How the White House sees its debt ceiling standoff with McCarthy

“Republicans, Biden asserted Wednesday, “say they’re going to default unless I agree to all these wacko notions they have. Default. It would be worse than totally irresponsible.”
He reminded McCarthy of the GOP’s hypocrisy — they had no problem raising the debt ceiling three times during the Trump presidency — and of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump’s own comments decrying debt limit brinkmanship as reckless. Biden also urged the speaker to “take default off the table, and let’s have a real, serious, detailed conversation about how to grow the economy, lower costs and reduce the deficit.”

According to two people familiar with the administration’s strategy, it’s not clear to anyone inside the White House if McCarthy has the votes from his own caucus to pass his bill, and it may not yet be clear to the speaker himself, who has what one person familiar with the White House’s thinking termed a “principal-agent problem.”

The bill would be dead on arrival in a Democrat-controlled Senate. But the White House is signaling clearly to GOP moderates in the House: Vote to cut popular programs, including Social Security and Medicare, at your own risk.

“If they pass this, we are going to hang it around their moderates’ necks,” said one person familiar with the administration’s thinking.”

“Biden, his aides say, learned from the Obama administration’s 2011 standoff with Republicans that it’s imperative not to allow the debt ceiling to become part of negotiations. But with McCarthy’s tenuous speakership constantly hanging by a thread, and dependent in large part on his ability to placate his most extreme members, the White House knows that talking him off the ledge on risking default — giving up what he sees as his main point of leverage — won’t be easy.

And as much as White House officials like the politics of the negotiations’ current phase, they know they, too, will face pressure to negotiate the closer they get to D-Day.”

Pentagon chiefs: Debt default is bad for troops, good for China

““China right now describes us in their open speeches, etc., as a declining power,” Milley said. “Defaulting on the debt would only reinforce that thought and embolden China and increase risk to the United States.”
Austin added that a default would mean a “substantial risk to our reputation” that China could exploit.”

Why the debt ceiling problem never goes away

“The reason Congress continues to land in the same place is that raising or suspending the debt ceiling, much like funding the government, is something it must address on a regular basis. Every few years or so, Congress has to either increase or suspend the country’s debt ceiling as it accrues more debt. This debt comes from covering government expenses including paying for the military, health care programs, and Social Security.

If it fails to address the debt ceiling, Congress would ruin the US credit rating and put its ability to pay its bills in doubt. That would likely trigger a domestic economic crisis, if not an international one. Were the US to default, interest rates would probably go up and unemployment would increase, potentially putting thousands or even millions of people out of work.

Because it’s must-pass legislation and requires the backing of both chambers, the party that’s out of power in the White House or in the minority in Congress has often used this measure as leverage to extract policy concessions or send a political message. That has erased any incentive to reform the process, even though Congress could do away with the debt ceiling if it wanted to.”

“In recent years, Republicans have been more aggressive in demanding concessions from Democratic administrations in exchange for their support for a debt ceiling increase, though both parties have utilized such votes in the past to make a point. That’s left the US in a dangerous cycle in which the minority party tries to squeeze every concession it can out of the process, debt ceiling negotiations go down to the wire, and any miscalculation on the part of lawmakers could inadvertently cause a default.”

“the United States is unique in having a debt limit that lawmakers need to suspend or raise every few years.

A debt limit was first established in 1917 in order to “make it easier to finance mobilization efforts in World War I,” per the Brookings Institution. That enabled the US government to take on debt without Congress approving each individual expenditure, which meant it could more quickly and efficiently finance the military. Since the 1960s, Congress has raised the debt limit more than 70 times; 20 of those times have been in the last 23 years. The debt limit effectively caps how much the US is able to borrow from federal agencies, foreign countries, and banks, so if the country defaults, it isn’t able to pay its bills.”

“The US government doesn’t have to work this way.
Congress could pass legislation doing away with the debt ceiling, and the president has options to ignore it as well, though they’d likely prompt legal challenges. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has reported, the president could invoke the 14th Amendment and ignore the debt limit, or Congress could approve an increase to the debt cap that’s so high it basically nullifies the ceiling.

Abolishing the debt limit altogether would prevent either party from using this process as political leverage. Doing so would greatly reduce the uncertainty that comes around every time there’s a deadline like this and prevent significant market volatility that results.

“There are zero downsides to getting rid of the debt ceiling. It is utterly meaningless as a policy guide or institution; it is good only for gridlocking government. And, in the modern age, gridlock is an enormous problem, given the huge pressing needs policymakers should be addressing,” said the EPI’s Bivens.

Other economic experts note that eliminating the debt ceiling could take away an opportunity for Congress to debate fiscal policy. But many feel like that’s a moot point, given debt ceiling standoffs are rarely about any specific spending anymore, but rather about weakening the party in power.”

“It’s unlikely there’s enough political will to make any of these changes happen. Instead, it seems as though lawmakers are comfortable getting right up to the brink — and running the risk of a default again and again.”

The lessons of the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, explained by the negotiators who were there

“The legislation, known as the Budget Control Act of 2011, initially increased the debt ceiling by $900 billion and guaranteed a similar amount in long-term savings across defense and non-defense expenditures. It also set up a super committee of lawmakers who were tasked with finding a set amount of additional spending cuts by late November, or automatic spending cuts would be triggered across the board.
By the time the bill passed, however, some of the economic damage was already done. Because the US was so close to default, the stock market had already dipped and the cost of borrowing had increased for the government as well. Higher borrowing costs effectively mean the government has to pay more for loans and has fewer resources to spend on public investments like infrastructure. Additionally, in part due to the brinksmanship involved, the credit rating agency S&P downgraded the country’s credit rating for the first time in US history, signaling to potential buyers that taking on US debt wasn’t as safe as it once was, and undercutting global trust in the country’s economy.

The outcome in 2011 revealed that even getting close to a default was dangerous and had a problematic impact on the economy, experts say. “This is an entirely human-made crisis that adds extra cost to the taxpayer, that can lead to market volatility, and that’s totally avoidable,” said David Vandivier, a former Treasury Department official.

“Repeating it doesn’t make sense,” emphasized Furman.

That warning may go unheeded, however. While Democrats have argued that the debt ceiling — which covers debts the US government has already incurred — should be separate from negotiations on the budget and spending, Republicans have indicated that they’re eager to use this opportunity to secure possible savings, even if it incurs risks that became apparent in 2011.”