The U.S. Treasury secretary said recently that the global economy could face a crisis if Congress failed to meet a November 3 deadline for raising the country's debt ceiling — the legal limit on the amount of money the government can borrow to pay debts.
After many years of spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than it collects in taxes each year, Washington's current debt is more than $18 trillion. That is bigger than the annual output of the entire United States, which is the world's largest economy.
While the debt has been growing more slowly in recent years, it is projected to rise rapidly in the future as the larger-than-usual baby-boom generation retires and begins collecting pensions from the government, and relatively fewer people are in the workforce to pay taxes.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said that without authority to borrow more, the government would have only $30 billion a day in tax receipts to meet bills, which may run $60 billion a day. He said failing to raise the debt limit would diminish confidence in the government, discourage investment and leave Washington without the means to cope with emergencies.
Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a leading House Democrat, said a default on U.S. debt payments would cause chaos in markets, prompt lenders to demand higher interest rates, and seriously damage the U.S. and the interconnected global economy.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told journalists Friday that the debt ceiling issue was "as serious as it gets for our economy" and could boost interest costs for home, auto and education loans.
Maya MacGuineas, who heads the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a research group that studies financial issues, said a U.S. default could spark a global recession or even a depression. She said it was hard to predict how dire the consequences could be, and that she hoped we never find out.
Parties at odds
The impasse pits the White House and congressional Democrats against the Republicans who control the House and the Senate. Some Republican conservatives are demanding strict new controls on government spending or policy changes. Democrats reject the measures and say this is not the time or the issue for such negotiations.
But Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio said government spending was "out of control." In a note on his website, he said Washington was spending $6 million per minute and costing every American family $23,000 per year.
In a floor speech Friday, the House majority leader, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, said each American faced a government debt burden of more than $150,000.
McCarthy denied that his party was holding the debt ceiling "hostage" and said "bipartisan talks" were underway on the issue. He said he wanted "a debt ceiling that gets raised but does something about the debt."
He said his constituents were demanding that Congress find a way to "change the direction" of the debt.
Republicans say failing to cut the national debt will hurt the economy by soaking up much of the available loan money and drastically increasing interest costs.
MacGuineas, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the debt ceiling debate was a reminder of the need to cut spending, raise taxes or both. But she said the right time for such financial debates is before the money is spent, not when the bill comes due.