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Reckless debt ceiling deception threatens government services, national and global economies

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The U.S. hit its debt limit — currently $31.4 trillion — in January 2023, triggering a high-stakes and potentially disastrous political fight.

Imagine for a moment you just bought a new home.

The process was hard. You must have looked at over a dozen properties, weighing which would best meet your needs today and in the future. But finally, you and your spouse decided on the home you wanted. You reached agreement on the terms following months of negotiations, took out a mortgage, and moved into your new home.

But a few days after your children have started classes at their new school, you get a troubling letter from your mortgage company. Upon further review of your home purchase, the mortgage company claims it authorized you to borrow too much money and is unilaterally changing the terms of your agreement after the fact. As a result, you have 30 days to return the excess amount — all $100,000 of it — or you will be evicted, creating calamity for you, your children, and your entire family.

If you think the mortgage company is being unfair, then you also think Congress should cleanly lift the debt ceiling. Let me tell you why. 

Just over a month ago, Congress passed a new budget on a bipartisan basis. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate came together to decide what our government’s priorities should be and how those priorities should be funded.

The negotiations were tough. The parties blew past the normal Sept. 30 deadline and did not reach a final deal until nearly Christmas. But in late December, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers voted for this bipartisan budget legislation.

At that time, Congress knew that it was authorizing more spending than it could pay for with revenue. So, just like when you buy a home, they had to finance the difference between what they could pay now and the total cost of investing in things like our common defense, veterans’ health care, transportation security, disaster recovery, community safety, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, and other essential services.

But just over a month after that bipartisan deal was reached, and after government agencies have already started operating on the budget that Congress approved, House Republicans are trying to change the terms that were agreed to by members of both parties. And, like the mortgage company in my analogy that wanted to reduce the amount of the loan they authorized after the fact, House Republicans are threatening domestic and global calamity if they do not get their way.

Unfortunately, this entire debt ceiling fiasco is based on a deception. 

If your mortgage company decided to unilaterally slash the value of your home loan, you couldn’t just close down a bedroom and bathroom to make up the difference while staying in your same home. It would totally upend your life. Likewise, failure to lift the debt ceiling to finance spending Congress already has authorized does not mean that spending will automatically be cut. Instead, it would have the opposite effect on the federal budget.

Failing to raise the debt ceiling would plunge the government into chaos. Because reaching the debt ceiling does not trigger any cuts to spending, it would instead cause the United States to get behind on its payments. Indeed, if the debt ceiling is not lifted, we estimate that the Treasury could be between two to three months behind on payments by the end of 2023.

As every American knows, missing and late payments mean your credit score will go down. It means the cost of borrowing will go up. It means penalties and late fees. It means that a political stunt supposedly aimed at reducing our national debt will end up ballooning the debt and costing taxpayers billions in fees and increased interest payments from which the American people will see no discernible benefit. It is a recipe for just the kind of wasteful spending Republicans claim to be fighting against.

On top of that, if Republicans go through with their plans and refuse to raise the debt ceiling, the American people can expect real disruption to services. We could see delays in Social Security payments that hurt the elderly and most vulnerable in our society. We could see veterans who cannot receive services or get benefits because of payment delays. We could see hundreds of thousands of federal employees locked out of their jobs or forced to work without pay, relying on local food banks to feed their families — including federal law enforcement officers, veteran caregivers, food inspectors, civilian defense personnel, and emergency responders. We could see tens of millions of Americans waiting for a tax refund check that never arrives.

And when the issuer of the world’s reserve currency defaults on debt and can’t make tax refund payments to its own citizens, global economic collapse is not far behind.

But none of this must happen. Indeed, in the nearly 250-year history of the United States, it has never happened before.

Now is the time for concerned Americans to call on members of Congress to honor that tradition and to conserve that history. There is still time to change our present course and avert catastrophe.

Call today and tell your member of Congress to reject harmful brinksmanship over the debt ceiling that could plunge us into a national and global depression. Tell them to honor the bipartisan budget deal they passed just over a month ago, follow the advice of President Biden, and pass a clean debt ceiling bill for the good of the nation. 

Everett Kelley is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which represents 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees

Tags debt ceiling

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