Without action from Congress, the Treasury will run out of money sometime in October, putting the nation into default for the first time in history.

The results would be so catastrophic – and so easy to avoid – that it’s hard to take the brinksmanship around lifting the debt ceiling seriously. And that’s what makes this moment so dangerous. We’re so used to being on the edge that we have lost the ability to imagine what would happen if we go over.

The scene playing out in Washington is very familiar. Whenever a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans in Congress rediscover fiscal conservatism. Even though Democrats voted with them three times to raise the debt ceiling when Donald Trump was president, Republicans are refusing to lift a finger to help Democrats do the same thing now.

To pressure Republicans, House Democrats passed debt ceiling legislation last week and attached it to a must-pass bill that would keep the government from shutting down Oct. 1. But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell vows to filibuster it, so that it can’t come up for debate.

It’s important to remember what the debt ceiling is and, especially, what it is not. It’s not a spending limit, or a tax limit, or a borrowing limit.

It’s just a number in the law that needs to be updated so that the Treasury can get cash to pay for the spending that Congress has already approved.


Failing to raise the debt limit is nothing like cutting up a family member’s credit card. It’s more like tearing up your own credit-card bill. It might feel good in the moment, but there are going to be consequences.

And what are they?

The short answer is that the government of the United States would default on its debts. Aside from the embarrassment that comes from being known worldwide as a deadbeat, lending us money would become a riskier proposition and we would have to pay more to finance the debt we hold.

A brief technical default occurred in 1979 when Congress raised the debt ceiling so close to the deadline that the Treasury couldn’t pay its bills on time. An economic study cited by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that the delay resulted in an interest rate increase of 0.6 percent, which cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars.

Even the threat of a default has an economic effect, according to a report from Moody’s Analytics. It pegged increases in Treasury bill yields – the amount the government has to pay for short-term borrowing – to the budget wars of 2013. When tea party Republicans tried to use the looming debt ceiling deadline for leverage to extract concessions from the Obama administration, short-term interest rates temporarily spiked. This cost taxpayers, businesses and households money they wouldn’t otherwise have had to spend, even though there was no actual default.

A long standoff on the debt ceiling would be felt throughout the economy, according to Moody’s. If the Treasury runs out of cash, interest rates will spike for everyone, creating an economic collapse similar in size to the one that rocked the nation in 2008.

The analysts predict that it could cost the economy up to 6 million jobs and $15 trillion in household wealth and would drive up the national unemployment rate from about 5 percent to 9 percent.

No amount of political leverage would be worth inflicting that much suffering on that many people. Congress needs to pull us back from the brink immediately.

There will be a time to debate spending, taxes and debt, but this is not it. None of us should get used to living this close to the brink.

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