The debt ceiling negotiations are going very poorly for the White House. The original Obama position that Congress should simply provide a blank-check increase with no cuts in spending crumbled when even Democrats couldn’t stomach voting for that approach. Then the White House fell back on its ideological obsession with raising tax rates and insisted on a hefty tax hike in any debt ceiling deal. Republicans have held remarkably firm against that nonsensical position.
Now Obama, more desperate than ever, is stepping up the absurd doomsday threats – raising the specter not only that he will choose not to make debt payments and precipitate a financial crisis if he doesn’t get his way – but that he will also refuse to allow scheduled Social Security checks to go out on August 3.
Does the president think he has such a pliant media that he’ll be able to stop Social Security checks from going out and somehow attach the blame to Republicans? Is he that crazy?
Consider Obama’s words: “I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven't resolved this issue. Because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.”
To people who rely on Social Security to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, that’s an awfully reckless thing for a president to say. It’s also false, because Obama can guarantee Social Security checks go out. In fact, it is entirely in his hands.
To start with, let’s be crystal clear that there is zero legal or practical reason for Social Security checks to be implicated in the debt ceiling debate. Social Security checks have continued to go out in previous protracted episodes when the debt ceiling was reached in 1985 and 1996. Moreover, in 1996 Congress passed a law amending the Social Security Act to specifically allow Social Security payments to continue to be made when the debt ceiling is reached. The legal mechanism: redeeming the Social Security trust fund bonds (money the general fund owes to Social Security) by issuing debt to the public. Since both types of bonds are included under the legal debt limit, this does not incur any new debt that would breach the ceiling.
In addition, every single Senate Republican voted for the Toomey-Vitter amendment months ago to guarantee that debt service payments and Social Security would be prioritized over all other government outlays in the event the debt ceiling is reached. Democrats – wanting to keep doomsday on the table as a reckless negotiating tactic – voted no. The House may soon vote on even more comprehensive legislation that would guarantee essential programs are prioritized and that reaching the debt ceiling would result in no worse than a partial shutdown of the federal government.
Whether or not Congress passes new legislation, the president and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner already have the legal authority to prioritize payments and to guarantee that bondholders are paid – avoiding a default – and that Social Security checks go out on schedule. Neither of those doomsday scenarios should be the focus of the ongoing debate.
To the extent Obama insists on threatening not to send Social Security checks, it’s critical that the public understand he is using seniors as pawns in his ongoing attempt to avoid confronting Washington’s spending problem and instead slam the economy with tax hikes that will make our economic challenges even greater.
The American people are sick of cynical scare tactics as a cover for Washington tax-borrow-and-spend as usual. Before we even consider allowing the federal government to accumulate even more debt for our children and grandchildren to pay, Congress needs to show a serious commitment to putting us on a path to a sound fiscal future.
They’ll have a great chance next week when they vote on the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. But I suspect the best opportunity won’t come until August, when Obama backs down from the crazy threats, allows Social Security checks to go out, and finally starts to get serious about cutting spending.
Phil Kerpen is vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity and the author of the forthcoming book “Democracy Denied” (BenBella Books, October 2011).