Monday, May 16, 2011

What To Do If The Debt Ceiling Is Not Raised? Ignore It

We are indeed approaching an unprecedented situation. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the US is the only nation ever to have a nominal debt ceiling, long ignored as a trivial matter since its imposition in 1917, given the routine way it has been raised so many times previously. But now we approach a battle royal, where House Republicans refuse to allow for any tax increases as part of any deficit reduction deal, and it would be extremely unwise of Obama or the Dems to agree to the more radical of their demands for spending cuts, including the fact that the only way they can defeat Obama next year is if they can engender a financial crisis leading to a return to a recession, which they can then blame on him. And if he is foolish enough to let them do that, well, then he may deserve not to be reelected.

So, my proposal is that if the Congress is unable to come to some sort of reasonable deal that will allow a vote on raising the debt ceiling, Treasury Secretary Geithner should simply ignore the debt ceiling and continue to pay the bills as they come in, thereby avoiding any defaults or spending cuts or financial crises. The fact is, in the absence of any direct instructions from the Congress on which bills should be paid and which should not be in the face of crashing into the debt ceiling (surely we are not talking about paying no bills at all), he has no authority not to follow the instructions of the Congress in its latest budget, and spend what has been mandated. That will be the last coherent instruction from the Congress, and I say he should obey that in the absence of anything else more specific. Indeed, it will be the only responsible thing to do.

Now, many might complain that "the law is not being obeyed." Well, yes, and I think that is too bad. But many laws fail to get enforced. The last administration clearly broke our laws against engaging in torture, but they were not and are not being punished, although supposedly we are torturing no more now. About half the states have anti-adultery laws, but the only case I am aware of within decades of any of them being enforced was an absurd one near me in Luray, Virginia, where a district attorney was arrested for it after his mistress turned him in, testifying against him. He had been stupid enough to cheat on this mistress, but it was for cheating on his wife that he was officially put away.

As it is, this debt ceiling limit, not in force in a form like ours anywhere else (The EU has rules tied to percent of GDP, 60%, but never enforced with some countries in permanent violation, e.g. Belgium), is a stupid law anyway, like those laws against adultery. It should simply be ignored, the sooner the better, so as to render it irrelevant. Tea baggers may bring lawsuits, but who is going to arrest the Treasury Secretary? Will a court have the nerve to start making specific rulings about what should be cut and what should not be cut, or what taxes should be raised to meet the debt ceiling? No.

My main regret is that this charade will move us ever that closer to becoming a banana republic. But, if it comes about, it will be because we have banana Republicans in the House of Representatives.


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