Instead of the usual political theater surrounding debt debates, a group of congressional conservatives are pushing legislation that would hasten action by holding lawmaker and bureaucratic feet to the fire when it’s time to talk about the nation’s financial future.
The conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) is currently moving to get Congress to re-adopt Rep. Tom McClintock’s (R-Calif.) 2015 Default Prevention Act.
On face, the legislation sounds like a measure that forces the government to spend money even when lawmakers can’t figure out how to handle the national debt. That’s because that is precisely what the legislation would do: require the Treasury to continue paying debt, interest and Social Security obligations even after the nation’s borrowing is maxed out.
But the important part of the bill is how it deals with those responsible for the nation’s out-of-control debt while the forced overspending is ongoing.
Payments to government contractors and federal employees would either halt or slow, depending on how vital they are to running a skeleton government. And that shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, considering the bill would also require federal agencies to kick accounting efforts into high gear with more frequent and more detailed spending reports while the nation is operating beyond the red.
Better yet, the lawmakers charged with getting the nation’s financial act together would receive no pay under the circumstances.
Back in 2013, then Treasury Secretary Jack Lew decried a similar plan as a way to shirk some government obligations while picking and choosing to fulfill others in the event of debt uncertainty.
“I think prioritization is just default by another name. It’s just saying that we will default on some subset of our obligations,” he said.
Of course, Lew was a government employee.
And the Brookings Institution has an entirely different take on what the bill would mean. From a 2015 analysis:
By changing the existing statutory framework, the Default Prevention Act would allow—indeed, codify—prioritization, thus removing the thorniest legal and constitutional difficulties when it comes to debt and Social Security payments. The feasibility of making debt and Social Security payments in full and on time while other payments are withheld could be addressed, not instantaneously, and perhaps not in time for this year’s crisis, but certainly before too long. It’s not as if it is logically impossible to separate these things out, just that configuring government computer systems can’t and won’t happen right in the moment of a crisis. But changing the law could set a system change into motion well in advance.
The most important thing to remember about the legislation is that it would essentially remove the teeth of any funding “emergency.” It would do so by guaranteeing that the most vulnerable recipients of government benefits are largely protected and ensuring that the government’s credit isn’t irrevocably damaged via default.
That would give congressional conservatives far more room to demand substantive cuts as a part of any budget deal without allowing the left to claim fiscally responsible lawmakers are starving the elderly and poor while simultaneous risking tanking the economy for good.
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