Why the debt limit won't expire in February

Last month, Congress and President Obama agreed to reopen the government they had closed and suspend the debt limit until February 7. But, in your nation’s capital, February really means March. Or May. Or possibly June.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
A statue of former Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin stands outside the Treasury Building in Washington. The current debt limit is set to expire in February 2014, but Gleckman doubts that will actually happen.

For those of you keeping score, the Congressional Budget Office now figures the next showdown over the nation’s debt limit will occur in March, or maybe as late as May or early June. That means up to six more months of fiscal uncertainty, unless Congress decides to kick the can further down the road before the next government shutdown–now scheduled for mid-January.

You may recall that our last fiscal crisis concluded a month ago when Congress and President Obama agreed to reopen the government they had closed and suspend the debt limit until February 7.

But, as it happens, February 7 doesn’t really mean February 7. In your nation’s capital, February really means March. Or May. Or possibly June.

Thus, May, or possibly June, is the same as February here, only hotter.

June may become fiscal February because the Treasury Department has the ability to take what are called extraordinary measures to keep borrowing for months after the law says it can’t. This is somewhat of a euphemism, however. I say this because Congress turns the debt limit into a political crisis practically every year. And each time Treasury takes the same steps to continuing borrowing long past the supposed deadline. At some point, an annual event probably stops being extraordinary.

It is something like, say, Arbor Day. This holiday comes along pretty regularly and for some people I’m sure it is extraordinary. But for the rest of us, Arbor Day falls somewhat short. Besides, at the Treasury Department they try to avoid extraordinary at all costs.

During the last debt limit crisis, Congress briefly considered barring Treasury from taking these once-extraordinary-but-now-routine measures. Those in the know call this the anti-OEBNR statute.

This law would have made the debt limit a real, meaningful deadline, forcing congressional action before a breach. And this year, it would have let February be February, with no opportunity for seasonal adjustment. But let’s face it, February pretty much stinks (except for the 2nd , which is both Groundhog Day and my wife’s birthday).

Of course, CBO can’t give an exact drop-date today. Though the level of spending over the next several months is fairly certain, tax collections are not. And the very uncertainty of a distant date makes it even less likely lawmakers will pay attention any time soon.

The only real consequence of the delay, of course, is that it gives Congress and the White House the opportunity to drag out the next fiscal crisis through spring, thus making it impossible to accomplish anything of consequence between now next November’s elections. After all, with campaigns in full swing you don’t think anybody will be in Washington after June, do you?

Fiscal stalemate gives Republicans more months to rail against Obamacare. And it gives the President more opportunities to turn the whole health exchange thing over to amazon. But, mostly, it means as many as six more months of dreary, February-like, budget stalemate. I, personally, can’t wait.

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