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“Debt Ceiling Debate: Speaker McCarthy Presents Initial Moves with High-Stakes Game Ahead – Check out These 5 Essential Reads”


Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the House would vote on a debt ceiling “within weeks.” AP Photo/Seth Wenig

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has laid down an opening gambit in what is likely to be a protracted battle over the debt ceiling, suggesting that Republicans are open to a deal — but at a very high price.

On April 17, 2023, McCarthy told a meeting on the New York Stock Exchange that the Republican-controlled House would vote “in the coming weeks” on a bill to “raise the debt ceiling into next year.” The catch? Among other things, Democrats would have to agree to freeze spending at 2022 levels and roll back regulations.

Such a deal is unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate or gain President Joe Biden’s signature. As such, McCarthy’s comments are best viewed as an early salvo in what could be a protracted negotiation to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis.

Explaining why the US has a debt ceiling in the first place – and why it is a constant source of political bickering – is a complicated matter. Here are five articles from The Conversation’s archive that provide some answers.

1. What exactly is the debt ceiling?

So, some basics. The debt ceiling was set by the US Congress in 1917. It limits the total national debt by setting a maximum amount that the government can borrow.

Steven Pressman, a economist at De Nieuwe School, explained that the original goal was “to get then-President Woodrow Wilson to spend the money he saw fit to fight World War I without waiting for oft-absent lawmakers to act. However, Congress didn’t want to write the president a blank check, so capped borrowing at $11.5 billion and required legislation for any increase.

Since then, the debt ceiling has been raised dozens of times. It currently stands at US$31.4 trillion – a figure that has already been reached. As a result, the Treasury has taken “extraordinary measures” to allow it to continue borrowing without breaching the ceiling. However, such measures can only be temporary – meaning that at some point Congress will have to act to lift the ceiling or default on its debt obligations, which is expected to take place in July or August.

Read more: Why America has a debt ceiling: 5 questions answered

2. ‘Catastrophic’ consequences

How bad could it be if the US defaults on its debt obligations? Well, pretty bad, according to Michael Humphries, deputy chairman of business administration at the University of Tourowho wrote two articles about the consequences.

“The domino effect of US default would be catastrophic. Investors such as pension funds and banks holding US debt could go bankrupt. Tens of millions of Americans and thousands of businesses that rely on government aid could suffer. The value of the dollar could collapse and the US economy would most likely go back into recession,” he wrote.

Read more: If the US defaults on debt, expect the dollar to fall – and with it Americans’ living standards

3. Undermining the dollar

And that’s not all.

Such a default could undermine the US dollar’s position as a “unit of account,” making it a widely used currency in global finance and trade. Losing this status would be a severe economic and political blow to the US. But Humphries admitted it’s hard to put a dollar value on the price of default:

“The truth is we really don’t know what’s going to happen or how bad it’s going to get. The extent of the damage caused by a US default is difficult to estimate in advance, because this has never happened before.”

Read more: Failing to pay US debt could cause dollar collapse – and seriously erode America’s political and economic power

4. Can McCarthy make a deal?

Many of these concessions are well known, such as allowing a single member of the House to cast a vote to remove him as speaker. But there are many more that remain secret that could influence McCarthy’s decision-making, argued Stanley M. Brand, a law professor at Penn State and former general counsel to the House. These could make it much more difficult to reach a deal with Biden on the debt ceiling.

“Some of the new rules that have emerged from McCarthy’s concessions seem to democratize procedures for considering and passing legislation. But they will likely make it difficult for members to get the working majority needed to pass legislation,” explains Brand. “That could make things like raising the statutory debt ceiling, which is necessary to avoid a government shutdown and financial crisis, and passing legislation to fund the government difficult.”

Read more: House Speaker McCarthy’s powers are still strong – but he will fight new rules that could prevent anything from being done

5. The GOP Endgame: A Balanced Budget

Another condition McCarthy agreed to in January is to push for a “balanced budget” within 10 years. His most recent debt ceiling speech made no mention of this, but it is likely that hardliners within his party will continue to demand it, jeopardizing his ability to compromise.

The US government has not had a balanced budget since 2001, the year President Bill Clinton left office. Linda J Bilmesan associate professor of public policy and public finance at Harvard Kennedy School who worked in the Clinton administration from 1997 to 2001 explained how they achieved that rare feat and why it is unlikely to be repeated today.

“In 1997, after the smoke cleared, both the Clinton administration and Republicans in Congress were able to take some political credit for the resulting budget surpluses,” she wrote. “But – crucially – both sides recognized that a deal was in the best interest of the country and were able to line up their respective members to get the votes in Congress needed to approve it. The contrast with the current political landscape is stark.”

Read more: I helped balance the federal budget in the 1990s – here’s how hard it will be for the GOP to achieve that same rare feat

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