Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has an idea, and it's a not a good one. He's the intellectual leader of a movement in Congress that believes failing to lift the debt limit in August won't automatically cause the nation to default on its debt (correct) or cause all that much disruption (wrong), because all the government will have to do when it can't borrow anymore is "prioritize" its spending.
That makes it sound so easy. It would be a chaotic nightmare.
First things first. Toomey's right that failing to raise the debt limit wouldn't automatically force the nation to default by ceasing to make interest or principal payments on the national debt. Treasury would still be collecting tax revenues, and it could put debt payments at the top of the list. Toomey has introduced a bill to make sure that would happen.
So no default, but what would happen to the rest of the budget? According to the Congressional Budget Office, the government is currently borrowing about 40 percent of every dollar it spends. Another 6 percent goes to pay interest on the debt. Fencing off debt interest and ending all borrowing means the government would have 46 percent less to spend -- which means it would suddenly have to cut everything else by almost half.
Even Toomey concedes (in a USA TODAY story June 16) that this would cause "sudden, drastic spending cuts," such as furloughing federal workers or delaying welfare payments. But you could lay off all non-military federal workers (including air traffic controllers, border patrol officers, Secret Service agents and -- for that matter -- all the members of the House and Senate and their staffs) and stop welfare payments and still not cut federal spending by 46 percent.
To cut government by that much, the Treasury or the Office of Management and Budget (assuming all their federal employees hadn't already been laid off) would have to go where the big money is -- defense, Social Security and Medicare, which together account for about 52 percent of all federal spending. One way to "prioritize" federal spending in those programs might be to stop paying soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, suspend Tricare health care payments for military retirees and issue IOUs to Social Security recipients and doctors who treat Medicare patients -- or pay all of them about half of what they're owed and promise to make up the rest later.
One gets the impression that those who talk about "prioritizing" federal spending if there's no movement to lift the debt limit haven't really thought this all the way through.
There's no getting around the fact that the nation needs to get serious about restraining deficits and the growth of the debt. But there are now just a little more than six weeks until the debt limit becomes a crisis, and it's hard to see Democrats and Republicans abandoning core principles on entitlements and taxes in six weeks.
Maybe everyone's bluffing. Maybe Vice President Biden will broker a budget deal that a majority of Congress can sign onto. But it seems increasingly possible that many members of Congress, led by Sen. Toomey, are walking toward the cliff, serene in the conviction that a little "prioritization" is all it will take to stave off apocalypse. Let's hope we don't have to find out that they're wrong.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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