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Debt-limit delay would jeopardize Social Security payments

June 29, 2011
USA Today
Richard Wolf

WASHINGTON — Social Security payments to millions of retirees and people with disabilities could be threatened if President Obama and Congress can't agree to increase the government's debt limit by Aug. 2, a new analysis shows.

Although the Treasury Department likely could avoid delaying Social Security checks, the analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center points up the depth of the cuts that would be needed if the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling isn't raised.

It shows that in August, the government could not afford to meet 44% of its obligations. Since the $134 billion deficit for that month couldn't be covered with more borrowing, programs would have to be cut.

If Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, payments to defense contractors and interest payments on Treasury bonds were exempt, that would be all the government could afford for the month. No money for troops or veterans. No tax refunds. No food stamps or welfare. No federal salaries or benefits.

Want to protect the social safety net? That would be possible — but only if Treasury stopped paying defense contractors, jeopardizing national security. Plus virtually every federal agency and employee.

"We should be honest with ourselves what this would be like, and the answer is it would be chaotic," said Jay Powell, a former top Treasury official in President George H.W. Bush's administration. "There is no way to avoid really serious pain."

Read all The Oval posts The Bipartisan Policy Center studied Treasury Department receipts and spending for August 2009 and 2010 and found that the government likely would not have enough revenue to make the full $23 billion payment to Social Security recipients due Aug. 3. That's the first Wednesday of the month, when a majority of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks go out.

Things wouldn't improve much as the days pass. The first major interest payment to creditors would be due Aug. 15 — $29 billion, more than the $22 billion due to arrive in revenue.

On that day, Treasury would have to roll over nearly $500 billion in maturing debt — necessitating an auction which, by that time, might have fewer takers than usual. If demand declines, interest rates would rise.

As the center foresees it, the picture would get worse: layoffs and lawsuits. Global market reaction and media glare. A possible downgrade in the U.S. credit rating, perhaps followed by the loss of market access.

The effect on the country, said former Republican senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, would be "irretrievable."


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