Steve Bell, Loren Adler, Shai Akabas and Brian Collins of the Bipartisan Policy Center recently put out an excellent analysis of what will happen if we breach the debt ceiling. Technically we’ve already breached the debt ceiling on December 31st, but Treasury has started extraordinary measures to juggle payments and borrow money. This can’t go on forever, and it won’t. The paper concludes that the “X date,” when there is officially not enough money to pay all the bills due on that date, will occur between February 15th and March 1st.
What’s most worrisome about the report is how uncertain they are about what will happen afterward. The main possible strategy they discuss is Treasury starting a process of “prioritization,” where they pick and choose what payments to make as the money comes in each day. In theory the United States wouldn’t default on its debts, because it could prioritize interest payments.
The only problem is that it isn’t clear that they have the legal authority to do that. As the BPC noted in a previous blog post, there’s a one-page, non-binding GAO report from the 1980s that suggests the executive branch would be able to do this. However, a long history of “impoundment,” or the executive branch ignoring or disobeying spending orders, and the subsequent battles show that this is not uncontroversial.
And as Josh Barro noted on Twitter, there are days when the Treasury couldn’t make the interest payment based on the income of that day. And these are some thin margins on the day-to-day measures; if some come in higher or lower than anticipated, we might miss an interest payment even if Treasury tried to prioritize. According to BPC, the money coming in and out is “lumpy,” so these risks are high. Beyond that, it isn’t even clear that Treasury has the technology or processes in place to do this successfully.
It’s important to remember that the conservative think tanks argue that the government can always prioritize interest payments, so there’s no risk of default if we go past the “X date.” I documented this as their argument from 2011, and it still is being used. As the idea of using the debt ceiling becomes normalized in the Washington press, the idea that we can’t default because the president can always prioritize the interest payment might become a form of justification for why the new normal isn’t so bad.
Should President Obama announce that if we breach the debt ceiling the government won’t make any payments, including on interest, period? The downside is all on the president if he tries. If he says he can still prioritize interest payments, but there’s an unknown glitch or difficulty with the day-to-day cash flows, it is a major embarrassment for the White House. And if he does start prioritizing payments, the White House could face serious political blowback from deciding who to pay. Treasury paying bondholders and military contractors but not Social Security or veteran’s hospitals — there are an infinite number of bad headlines. If Treasury is prioritizing these, even because Congress has forced it to, it is a losing proposition for the White House. And you can’t lose the game if you don’t play.
The Real Problem With a Trillion Dollar Platinum Coin
The BPC report also shows a way to operationalize the platinum coin strategy. There have been numerous write-ups of the platinum coin strategy, which would allow the Treasury to create large-denomination platinum coins to deposit at the Federal Reserve, thus keeping the government funded if it can’t borrow money. Matt O’Brien sums up everything you want to know, and Interfluidity and Ryan Cooper have link roundups. The link roundups give you a sense of the critics of this strategy. BPC calls it “impractical, illegal, and/or inappropriate” (my favorite things!), while most think of it as unserious.
I think the bigger problem of the trillion-dollar platinum coin strategy isn’t the platinum but the trillion. I worry that the public will either think a trillion-dollar coin means the government is changing, in a big way, how it funds itself permanently, or that President Obama wants to bulldoze Congress on all spending authority to spend an extra trillion dollars, rather than what it is, which is a mechanism to keep spending Congress already passed going.
Luckily, scanning the BPC daily timetables, on most individual days the deficit between money coming in and going out will be between $10 and $20 billion. (There are a few days where it will be on the order of $50 or $60 billion, however.) Here’s an example:
So, instead of a trillion-dollar coin, what if the president said, “I have a constitutionally obligated responsibility to carry out the spending Congress has authorized. I have no legal authority to prioritize payments, and the process is too risky for us to try. Therefore I will mint a $20 billion coin each day until Congress raises the debt ceiling. That is just enough to make the payments Congress has required me to make.”
It takes the trillion out of the headline. The focus is back on day-to-day spending rather than higher-level arguments about whether or not the United States government can run out of money. With actual speechwriters, the pitch could make sense to the public. And insiders watching it would understand it is the same exact thing as the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Interfluidity brought up the idea of smaller denomination platinum coins. Tying it to one-coin-a-day will help frame the discussion where it needs to be, which is Congress provoking a constitutional crisis by refusing to fund money it has already spent.