Ben Carson Isn’t Alone In Having Utterly Silly Ideas About The Debt Ceiling
Yes, Ben Carson's comments about the debt ceiling are silly, but it's the fact that a lot of Republicans agree with him that's dangerous.
Pundits are insisting that Ben Carson doesn’t understand what the debt ceiling is, or how the Federal budget process works. In reality, though, Carson is simply reflecting what many of his fellow Republicans believe, and that poses a problem for the immediate future.
GOP 2016 candidate Ben Carson appeared unable to give a straight answer when asked repeatedly about whether he would raise the debt ceiling during a Marketplace interview posted Thursday.
At one point, Carson said he would urge his administration to “cut where you need to cut” when asked if he would let the government default on its debt, suggesting he didn’t understand that the debt ceiling authorizes payments on debts the government has already incurred.
When Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal first asked Carson: “As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, we’re going to run out of money, we’re going to run out of borrowing authority on the 5th of November. Should the Congress then, and the president, not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?”
“Let me put it this way. If I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget, absolutely would not do it,” Carson responded. “They would have to find a place a cut.”
Ryssdal repeated variations of the question two more times, clarifying that he was asking about increasing the debt limit, not the budget: “But I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit?”
“No, I would provide leadership that says, get on the stick, guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut because we’re not raising any spending limits, period,” Carson said.
Here’s the relevant section from the interview transcript:
Ryssdal: All right, so let’s talk about debt then and the budget. As you know, Treasury Secretary Lew has come out in the last couple of days and said, “We’re gonna run out of money, we’re gonna run out of borrowing authority, on the fifth of November.” Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?
Carson: Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.
Ryssdal: To be clear, it’s increasing the debt limit, not the budget, but I want to make sure I understand you. You’d let the United States default rather than raise the debt limit.
Carson: No, I would provide the kind of leadership that says, “Get on the stick guys, and stop messing around, and cut where you need to cut, because we’re not raising any spending limits, period.”
Ryssdal: I’m gonna try one more time, sir. This is debt that’s already obligated. Would you not favor increasing the debt limit to pay the debts already incurred?
Carson: What I’m saying is what we have to do is restructure the way that we create debt. I mean if we continue along this, where does it stop? It never stops. You’re always gonna ask the same question every year. And we’re just gonna keep going down that pathway. That’s one of the things I think that the people are tired of.
Reading through the transcript, it seems apparent that Carson continues to make clear that he believes that the Federal Budget process and the debt ceiling are the same thing. If he had only responded this way to one question, it would be easy to dismiss this as him misunderstanding the question and moving on, but Ryssdal repeated the same question three times and, correctly, made the point that raising the debt ceiling is a matter completely unrelated to the Federal Budget itself since you can’t eliminate the Federal Government’s obligation to pay its debts by cutting the budget. Notwithstanding those clarifications, though, Carson continued on the track he had started out on and insisted that the way to deal with the debt ceiling is to cut the budget, and refusing to say whether he would support an increase in the debt ceiling that could cause the United States to default on its obligations. Carson’s campaign issued a statement this afternoon in an effort to clarify these remarks:
In a statement on Thursday, Carson told NBC News, “Critics have blown this way out of proportion, or more correctly, don’t appreciate my resolve to get our fiscal house in order.”
Carson did assert that he understands the concept of the debt limit, but again repeated his argument that government spending is the real issue.
“While raising the debt ceiling is about paying for obligations the federal government has incurred, I made clear in my interview that unless we get our debt under control, we will be back having the same argument about the debt ceiling on a regular basis,” he said.
But Carson offers no stance on raising the upcoming debt limit, and a spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification on whether Carson opposes a hike in November.
In the wake of Carson’s statements, many political observers have called the comments problematic for him and his campaign. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump called the interview “awkward” and went on to provide a fairly detailed analysis of why Carson is wrong to conflate the question of raising the debt ceiling with issues regarding the Federal Budget. Jordan Weissman does the same, and goes on to detail other parts of the interview that he says show that Carson knows very little about how the government or economy works. While that may be true, it’s worth noting that what Carson is saying about the debt ceiling isn’t exactly an uncommon view among conservative Republicans, and it’s the reason why the upcoming fight over raising that ceiling is likely to be even more contentious than the one we saw in the summer of 2011.
On the right, the prevailing view among conservative activists and the Tea Party crowd regarding the debt ceiling seems to be that the debt ceiling is the primary example of the nation’s fiscal profligacy and that raising it will only encourage the same budgetary behavior that led us to a world where, as of today, the National Debt now stands at $18,150,557,110,995. These are the same people who brought the Federal Government to the brink of default in the summer of 2011, and many of them at least publicly stated that they believed that the debt ceiling shouldn’t be raised at all. In reality, of course, the debt ceiling, which probably shouldn’t exist at all, exists simply to pay for obligations that the government has already incurred and which could lead to the ultimately financial crisis of the United States failing to pay interest on government debt. As I noted when the debt kamikazes that led us down the road to a near crisis in 2011 reappeared two years later, though, that’s not the only potential consequence of a failure to raise the debt ceiling:
Interest obligations on the national debt and paying off redeemed bonds is only one of the many payments that the Treasury Department is required to make on a regular basis. In addition to those payments, there’s everything from salaries for Federal Employees, Social Security payments to beneficiaries, Medicare payments to providers, obligations owed to contractors who have provided services and supplies to the Federal Government, and any number of other obligations that the Federal Government owes that come up on a regular basis. As a simple matter of mathematics, it is quite often the case that the money that the Federal Government owes under all of these obligations is more than the amount of revenue (from tax payments and other sources) that comes into Federal coffers. Under ordinary procedures this isn’t a problem because the Treasury Department regularly floats new bonds to cover ongoing obligations.
If the debt ceiling is not raised, the Treasury Department’s authority to issue new debt to cover these already-incurred obligations would would be in serious legal doubt to say the least
So, that leaves us with the probability that tens of thousands of Federal obligations that don’t fall under the “sovereign debt” category would go unpaid if the nation went along for an extended period of time without raising the debt ceiling. That means, potentially, Social Security and pension recipients not being paid, Federal employees not being paid or being paid late, and Federal contractors and suppliers not being paid. For better or worse, the Treasury Department will be forced to make choices about who gets paid and who doesn’t, and those who don’t get paid are going to suffer real economic harm even if it just means that there is a delay in receipt of payment. The economic implications of this should be blindingly obvious. Cut off payments to the contractors, and they won’t have money to pay their employees, who won’t have money to pay their own bills or spend money in their community. Delay or cut off payments under Social Security, Medicare, or to Federal employees to cover salaries, and the same thing will happen. The economic chaos would, to borrow a phrase, “trickle down” and, absent a quick resolution, would quite obviously do real harm to the economy.
This is the reality of what would happen if we failed to raise the debt ceiling, and it’s one that many on the right seem to either not believe at all or be willing to allow happen to prove whatever ideological point it is they think they’re proving by being intransigent. Republicans in leadership positions know this to be nonsense, of course, but as we’ve seen quite well over the past two weeks alone, leadership on Capitol Hill has very little ability to control rank and file members. With the debt ceiling approaching it maximum within the next month, that becomes a serious concern and the probability that we will face a showdown, and even a government shutdown, because of it is something that now has to be considered as a realistic possibility.
So yes, Ben Carson’s views on the debt ceiling, and his refusal to acknowledge the necessity that the debt ceiling will have to be raised, are utter nonsense. The fact that they are being made by someone who is current in second place in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination is utterly depressing. He’s not alone in these views in the Republican Party, though, and that, combined with the impending fiscal deadlines the country faces, makes for a very bad recipe.