Debt Ceiling: Default Not at Issue, Federal Spending Is

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President Obama is expected to make his case for a debt ceiling increase at a press conference this morning. The development comes as House Republicans are reportedly weighing “default” and “government shutdown.” While it’s encouraging that conservatives are gearing up for a fight, it’s important that policymakers and the public keep those two terms straight.

Default. The only way the federal government would default on its debt in the event the debt ceiling remains unchanged is for the Treasury to choose to default—an utterly implausible eventuality. Suggestions to the contrary in the press and elsewhere are simply inaccurate and shameful.

The amount of debt the federal government is allowed to issue is set by statute. Federal spending is similarly established by law. Treasury is at once prohibited by law from issuing additional debt above the limit and obligated by law to spend certain amounts for designated purposes. The Treasury has certain tools it can use to muddle through once the debt ceiling is reached, but these terms are limited and are expected to be exhausted toward the end of February.

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