Will Congress take care of the budget before our debt explodes?
© Greg Nash

This has been a tortuous legislative year. Key business has been set aside while some “urgent” matters have taken center stage — and are lingering much longer than anyone had anticipated. But the fiscal year waiteth for no man, and soon Congress will be forced to get down to business. That will unearth the following challenges.

Healthcare legislation is complicated.

Some Washingtonians expected a repeal and replace of ObamaCare to save the federal government money, which could be used to pursue tax reform and other priorities as well as bringing that pesky deficit down. Well, no such luck, at least not so far. It looks like that cost curve lawmakers were trying to bend down is still rising at an accelerating rate. The lack of consensus on reform now does not bode well for later.

The debt limit is misunderestimated.

Financial markets remain eerily calm. Investors assume that the United States will never default, because it never has. But the situation is perilous. Republicans, who make up the sad congressional majority that also controls the White House, must cast the ugly vote to raise the national debt limit. They cannot have their president be the first in history to default. Or so, as logic would suggest. But some Republicans have pledged never to vote to increase the debt limit. Others say they will compromise their similar principles only if the same legislation contains aggressive nondefense spending cuts.

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Unfortunately for them, any debt limit legislation will be subject to a potential Senate filibuster, in which case Republicans will need votes from Democrats to reach 60 and end debate. Some Democrats will vote to raise the debt limit because it would avert catastrophe and be the right thing to do, but many might be willing to play a high-stakes game of chicken to elicit concessions in their favor.

 

The ultimate witching hour for the debt limit is impossible to predict with precision. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has reached into his bag of tricks and been managing our cash since March. The moment when he runs out of tricks and cash — and starts kiting U.S. government checks — is determined by the amounts and timing of literally millions of bills and tax receipts. If and when financial markets consider our dysfunctional Washington politics, they may become very nervous.

The government faces a shutdown.

Washington’s moral equivalent of keeping the lights on is funding the various government agencies through annual appropriations. Here again, partisanship is in the way, especially with 60 votes required in the Senate. For example, some Republicans insist that the appropriations include funding for a border wall with Mexico, but some Democrats will not vote for any bill that includes it. Most Democrats do not want the government to turn the lights off, but some won’t mind tarring the president with a shutdown if they are confident that it will work to their political advantage.

The budget shortfall is worsening.

The foregoing is the Washington game. But the playing field rests on the same shaky ground as it has for years. With each passing day, people become ever more blasé about the budget and debt problem. After all, the wolf hasn’t arrived, so it must be a fairy tale, right? But in fact, the debt mounts, and the economy moves ever closer to the point where interest rates will rise toward their longer-term averages. Today’s debt load will not mix well with history’s interest rates. In fact, they will yield an explosive brew.

The nation desperately needs our elected policymakers to wake up to the risks they run. We need everyone at the table, and everything on the table. And we need it soon. All of that mounting debt isn’t going to go away by itself, and by the time we begin to see the markets panic, it will already be too late. Let’s stop playing the game, and instead fulfill our obligations to America and its future generations.

Joseph J. Minarik (@JoeMinarik) is senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development. He served as chief economist at the White House Office of Management and Budget for eight years under President Clinton. He previously worked with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) on his efforts to reform the federal income tax, which culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. He is coauthor of “Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity.”


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