With a potential government shutdown looming, members of the Obama administration have been frequently warning Americans about just how many people are counting on federal programs and payouts.
During a recent White House briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney noted the payments “include bills to contractors, small businesses, big businesses that do work with the government, the people who manufacture the ammunition that we send to our troops in Afghanistan.”
“We write 80 million checks a month,” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said on “Fox News Sunday” this week. “There are millions and millions of Americans that depend on those checks coming on time.”
Those 80 million checks are just the ones from the Treasury. In total, the government sends out nearly 212 million checks or electronic payments on a monthly basis. The top five categories are: Medicare claims, Social Security payments to older Americans and the disabled, food stamps and payments to active and retired military personnel.
Irvin Faunce, who served as a Deputy Commissioner of the Financial Management Service within the Treasury Department, worries that the sheer volume of the payments may have dulled lawmakers and agencies in Washington to the reality of exactly what the government is spending.
“I don't believe that there really is a realization that this is really real money,” he told Fox News.
Faunce also notes that once a government check is issued, it’s literally as good as cash. “There is no stop payment capability; it's not like a commercial check that can be stopped.”
Say, for instance, that you take a tax refund check to your bank. According to Faunce, the bank must give you cash – even if it has some institutional worry that the U.S. government doesn’t actually have the funds to reimburse the bank. “Then if it bounces, from the standpoint that the Treasury can’t reimburse banks for the money that they paid, then the banks are out of the money.”
Faunce notes that some banks might be willing to tap into their own reserves, fully believing the government will eventually made good on the debt. However, that would mean the banks couldn’t use the money to earn interest – a move they certainly hope they won’t have to make.