Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has set a deadline for Congress to act on lifting the debt ceiling: October 18. At that point, she will have exhausted all the available measures to shuffle money around to pay the bills. Which, again, is what the debt ceiling is about—paying the accrued bills for borrowed money already spent. On Tuesday, Yellen told CNBC that this isn’t a game, however much the traditional media tries to pretend it’s all just partisan squabbling.
“It would be catastrophic to not pay the government’s bills, for us to be in a position where we lacked the resources to pay the government’s bills,” Yellen said in the CNBC interview. “I fully expect it would cause a recession as well.” Never has the U.S. breached the debt limit, though the last few times we got this close to it happening—because of Mitch McConnell’s nihilism of course—the nation’s credit rating took a hit. The ratings outfits—Fitch, S&P, Moody’s—are all nervously watching the latest developments with concern. And they’re getting kind of sick of it. “The debt limit impasse reflects a lack of political consensus that has hampered the U.S.’s ability to meet fiscal challenges for some time,” Fitch said on Friday.
Which is an awfully good reason for the whole debt ceiling as hostage problem to be done away once and for all. It’s not an outrageous suggestion; Yellen has recommended it. She argued last week before the House Financial Services committee that the statutory debt limit needs to be abolished because it is so “destructive.” It creates an artificial and unnecessary risk to the nation’s economy, and thus to the global economy.
“I believe when Congress legislates expenditures and puts in place tax policy that determines taxes, those are the crucial decisions Congress is making,” Yellen told the committee. “And if to finance those spending and tax decisions it is necessary to issue additional debt, I believe it is very destructive to put the president and myself, as Treasury secretary, in a situation where we might be unable to pay the bills that result from those past decisions.” Congress created the debt ceiling back in 1917 to free the Treasury from having to ask permission every time it needed to issue bonds to service the nation’s debt. It wasn’t until 1939 that an actual ceiling was placed on the debt. Congress created it, so Congress can also abolish it.
There are a number of ways to do that, including a few that don’t involve Congress. That would include the infamous trillion-dollar platinum coin minted “within hours of the Treasury Secretary’s decision to do so,” according to Philip Diehl, former director of the United States Mint.
Some constitutional scholars make an argument that the president can just ignore the debt limit and continue to borrow to pay the nation’s bills. Following the Civil War, Congress wrote the 14th Amendment which included Section 4, which says in part that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law […] shall not be questioned.” That would imply that, constitutionally, there is no debt limit, and thus, that the statute can be ignored. Ironically, that section was included in the amendment because of the fear in Congress that the forbearers of the current Republican—the Confederate states—would try to sabotage the government by refusing to pay the nation’s bills. Right now, the administration is pooh-poohing any possibility of using these options.
That leaves congressional solutions, most of which involve the Senate finally accepting reality and changing how it operates. Namely, the Senate needs to once and for all get rid of the legislative filibuster. That’s the most straightforward path. Eliminate the filibuster with legislation that, for example, ties the debt limit to the national debt, insuring that it increases (or decreases) in line with what the nation owes. That same formula for abolishing the debt limit as a weapon could be used in a budget reconciliation measure, which McConnell is trying to force Democrats into using.
Ending the filibuster, however, is ultimately inevitable and the most straightforward option even if it ends up being a carve-out just for the debt ceiling, like there are carve-outs of the filibuster for executive and judicial nominations. The Congress acting as a responsible branch of government should be something a simple majority of Senators can achieve.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this is one end game President Joe Biden and leadership are working toward right now. It’s possible that they believe demonstrating to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema that McConnell and team are more than willing to create a global economic catastrophe. It’s also possible that Manchema collectively is either too dumb or too self-absorbed or too committed to being “mavericky” to internalize that threat and grow the fuck up.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.