Some advocates of prioritization seem to believe that everything will be OK as long as we keep making our interest payments. Let me give four reasons they’re wrong.
First, the U.S. government would still be going into default, failing to meet its legal obligations to pay. You may say that things like Social Security checks aren’t the same as interest due on bonds because Congress can’t repudiate debt, but it can, if it chooses, pass a law reducing benefits. But Congress hasn’t passed such a law, and until or unless it does, Social Security benefits have the same inviolable legal status as payments to investors.
Second, prioritizing interest payments would reinforce the terrible precedent we set after the 2008 crisis, when Wall Street was bailed out but distressed workers and homeowners got little or nothing. We would, once again, be signaling that the financial industry gets special treatment because it can threaten to shut down the economy if it doesn’t.
Third, the spending cuts would create great hardship if they go on for any length of time. Think Medicare recipients turned away from hospitals because the government isn’t paying claims.
Finally, while prioritizing might avoid an immediate financial crisis, it would still have devastating economic effects. We’d be looking at an immediate spending cut roughly comparable to the plunge in housing investment after the bubble burst, a plunge that was the most important cause of the Great Recession of 2007-09. That by itself would surely be enough to push us into recession.
And it wouldn’t end there. As the U.S. economy went into recession, tax receipts would fall sharply, and the government, unable to borrow, would be forced into a second round of spending cuts, worsening the economic downturn, reducing receipts even more, and so on. So even if we avoid a Lehman Brothers-style financial meltdown, we could still be looking at a slump worse than the Great Recession.
So are there any other choices? Many legal experts think there is another option: One way or another, the president could simply choose to defy Congress and ignore the debt ceiling.
Wouldn’t this be breaking the law? Maybe, maybe not — opinions differ. But not making good on federal obligations is also breaking the law. And if House Republicans are pushing the president into a situation where he must break the law no matter what he does, why not choose the version that hurts America least?
There would, of course, be an uproar, and probably many legal challenges — although if I were a Republican, I’d worry about, in effect, filing suit to stop the government from paying seniors’ hospital bills. Still, as I said, there are no good choices here.
So what will happen if and when we hit the debt ceiling? Let’s hope we don’t find out.