The debt default in the US is not looking good

For the first time in history, the US government would default on debts and fail to pay creditors

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at a weekly Democratic policy meeting at the US Capitol, in Washington, last week. AFP
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The American political system, notwithstanding the intensive stress test it has endured in recent years, now faces two urgent challenges.

The Senate and the Joe Biden administration must immediately prevent a catastrophic debt default and then protect the electoral system before next year’s midterms.

That will require courage, unity and internal compromise, especially given razor-thin Democratic majorities in Congress and near-total opposition from Republicans.

The US, it would appear, is hurtling towards a debt default abyss.

No one knows exactly when the government will run out of the means to pay its creditors, but Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned it could happen as early as October.

This could trigger a massive US and global financial crisis, starting with a deep recession, followed by potentially unmanageable compounding disasters.

As things stand, Congress has limited the government to $28.4 trillion in debt. Not extending that “ceiling” means that the Treasury stands to run out of cash reserves and borrowing capacity in the coming weeks.

For the first time in history, the US government would default on debts and fail to pay creditors. The avalanche of financial horrors that would come crashing down is obvious.

This surreal predicament arises from an elaborate game of chicken in Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans want each other to save the global and national economy, but in a way that will benefit themselves politically.

Democrats refused to include raising the debt ceiling in the budget "reconciliation" bill they passed a few months ago by simple majority and without Republican support. They say Republicans share responsibility for paying debts they greatly helped accumulate, particularly under former president Donald Trump.

Republicans want to force Democrats to use the reconciliation process after all, because that would mean assigning a specific new number on the ceiling rather than simply extending it.

They would then paint Democrats as recklessly spending, and hope voters don't realise the new number is for servicing existing obligations, not new spending.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell specialises in concocting fabricated "rules" to recast his transgressions as traditions.

So, preparing to filibuster any debt ceiling suspension, he’s arguing that everyone knows the party in power is alone responsible for avoiding a default that he readily agrees is unthinkable and calamitous.

It’s definitely a new one.

He wants to force the Democrats to assume all blame for the existing debt and saddle them, exclusively, with the scary number a reconciliation bill would require, unlike a bipartisan debt ceiling suspension with no new number.

These measures are aimed precisely at stripping the power of those who refused to manipulate the system

Democrats must be brave and unified. They wanted to call Mr McConnell's bluff, seeing a degree of mutual assured destruction in a default. He may indeed be bluffing, but it's not worth trying to find out.

This game of chicken should end immediately. Democrats ought to bite the bullet and alone adopt a new debt ceiling, with that large "scary" number, through reconciliation.

Voters aren’t going to panic. That Republicans are willing to sink the national and global economy just to disrupt the Biden administration is a pretty powerful indictment.

These days Democrats are often incongruously and unhappily forced into the role of governance adults. But that can be turned to their advantage.

Taking a serious political risk for good governance is something they can run on. They might find the country is ready for serious policies.

That's all got to be done in the next few weeks. Then, in coming months, they must move to protect the electoral system, particularly the independence and credibility of election authorities in the states.

Along with many existing systemic problems, following last year's election Republican state legislatures around the country have been passing sweeping voting restriction measures.

They are evidently trying to do all they can to limit voting, in hopes that this will damage Democratic chances.

Far more ominously, they have been transferring authority for election oversight away from non-partisan officials to overtly partisan institutions such as themselves.

The obvious intention is to ensure that, although Mr Trump's effort to overturn the election and the will of the voters last year failed, another attempt by him or another Republican leader will be handled by far more co-operative officials.

These measures are aimed precisely at stripping the power of those who refused to manipulate the system or lie about the results in order to keep Mr Trump in power, while they continue to be personally excoriated by the former president and his supporters.

New information confirms that, as Mr Trump fought to stay in office despite his defeat in last November's election, the US came exceptionally close to a complete breakdown in the constitutional order. He pressured numerous state officials to misrepresent or refuse to certify the results. He asked courts to throw out the results based on deliberately false claims. He urged state legislatures to overturn the results. Following what must be deemed a coup plan drafted by a lawyer named John Eastman, he tried to get former vice president Mike Pence to extra-constitutionally overturn the results in Congress. And, finally, he helped to unleash a mob to attack Congress to prevent certification of the results.

All these efforts failed, but some just barely. Different decisions by a few officials, or even just Mr Pence, would have created a much deeper calamity.

Despite overwhelming evidence, most recently from Arizona, that there was no election fraud, many Republicans still embrace that myth.

Urgent measures to protect voting access and prevent partisan entities from supervising elections are necessary to future post-election machinations plunging the country into utter chaos.

Senate Democrats have crafted a good compromise bill, but have no Republican support.

Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, support the bill, but don't want to eliminate the filibuster that blocks it.

So, Mr Biden needs to unite Democrats around an elections "carve-out," analogous to the budget "reconciliation" exception, a rule change that they could enact with their simple majority.

Then they can pass their bill to protect voting access and the integrity of election supervision, a major step to preventing the 2022 and especially 2024 elections from becoming train-wrecks, despite Republican opposition.

In both cases, Mr Biden and the Democrats face difficult but defining tests of their commitment to being the party of governance rather than grievance. They can't afford to fail either.

Published: September 27, 2021, 5:00 AM
Updated: October 31, 2021, 3:07 PM