(Sen. Pat Toomey) – As members of Congress debate whether to raise the U.S. debt ceiling—the limit on our government’s debt—we should all agree on at least one thing: Under no circumstances is it acceptable for the U.S. to default on its debt. Not only are we morally obligated to honor our debts, but we benefit greatly from the nearly universal conviction that those who lend to us will always be repaid, on time and in full. We should never undermine that conviction.
Fortunately, even if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, a default on our debt need not follow when our borrowings reach their limit in the next few months. I intend to introduce legislation to make sure of this.
For months, some political leaders and commentators have argued that failure to raise the debt ceiling would necessarily cause the U.S. to default on its debt. President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors chairman, Austan Goolsbee, recently warned, “If we get to the point where you’ve damaged the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity. I don’t see why anybody’s talking about playing chicken with the debt ceiling.”
In fact, if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, the federal government will still have far more than enough money to fully service our debt. Next year, for instance, about 6.5% of all projected federal government expenditures will go to interest on our debt, and tax revenue is projected to cover about 67% of all government expenditures. With roughly 10 times more income than needed to honor our debt obligations, why would we ever default?
To make absolutely sure, I intend to introduce legislation that would require the Treasury to make interest payments on our debt its first priority in the event that the debt ceiling is not raised. This would not only ensure the continued confidence of investors at home and abroad, but would enable us to have an honest debate about the consequences of our eventual decision about the debt ceiling.
If we do not raise it, the government’s tax revenue will enable us to fund roughly two-thirds of projected expenditures, including interest payments. Without the ability to borrow the other third, spending cuts would be sudden and severe: Projects would be postponed, some vendor payments would be delayed, certain programs would be suspended, and many government employees might be furloughed. Default would easily be avoided, but these cuts would certainly be disruptive. That’s why I hope we can avoid this scenario.
But it would be even worse simply to raise the debt ceiling without regaining control of federal spending. The recent surge in spending, both in absolute dollars and as a percentage of our GDP, has driven us to record deficits and an explosion of debt. The growth in discretionary spending has been the most dramatic, but in the future mandatory entitlement spending will be the deficit driver. Congress must address both in order to put the government back on a sustainable fiscal path.
The vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling—and, if so, by how much—is our best opportunity to insist that any increase in our nation’s debt be coupled with concrete steps toward fiscal sanity. Congress should make increasing our debt contingent on immediate cuts in spending and effective reforms of the spending process that helped get us into this mess.
For too many years, Congress has ignored or exacerbated the looming fiscal crisis created by overspending. Last fall’s elections were largely a call to finally deal with this imminent threat, and the vote on the debt ceiling is Congress’s opportunity to begin making real progress. We can do so without jeopardizing the full faith and credit of our country—and we should.
(Mr. Toomey, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.)