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In our opinion: Let's not find out

Published: Tuesday, July 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A seemingly endless eleventh-hour negotiation over the debt ceiling is forcing many Americans to ask: What will happen if the debt ceiling isn't raised?

None of the possible answers are pretty, especially in light of a still-weak economic recovery.

Budgeting issues can be complicated, and much of the current commentary suggests that a review of what the debt limit is may be in order. A few basics:

First, Congress passes budget bills ordering or allowing the president to spend money. The executive branch then follows through by spending that money. If there isn't enough money to cover the expenses authorized by Congress, the executive branch borrows.

Second, the debt ceiling is also passed by Congress. It determines how much the Treasury is allowed to borrow.

The important point here is that the debt ceiling does not control how much money is spent. That is decided in the budget passed by Congress. So it makes no sense for Congress to run up a tab in its budget bills and then turn around and block the Treasury from paying those bills by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Such a vote would be the height of hypocrisy.

Congress cannot curb spending through the debt ceiling, but it can through the actual budget. Passing a balanced budget is the equivalent of cutting up the credit cards, and that is a smart idea. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling is the equivalent of cutting up the credit card statements, and that is idiotic.

If the debt limit is not raised, the United States will have to decide which bills to pay and which bills not to pay — that is, which promises to break.

In one possible scenario, the U.S. could decide not to pay interest to its bond-holders. Bond-rating agencies have made it clear that if this were to happen, the country's credit rating would be downgraded, something that would surely shake the already fragile economic recovery.

A second scenario: Some have argued that the U.S. would still have enough to pay the interest on its bonds even if the debt ceiling was not raised. But this scenario would require not paying for something else that has been budgeted and bargained for by Congress, such as defense contracts, Social Security payments or salaries for federal employees — in essence, it could result in a partial government shutdown. It is difficult to see how this would be good for the economy.

In a third possible scenario, President Barack Obama could just ignore the debt limit and continue to borrow in order to pay the government's obligations. The 14th Amendment stipulates, "The validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned." If the debt ceiling is not raised, Obama would be in a Catch-22, forced to either violate the 14th Amendment or to act to prioritize spending, thereby violating the separation of powers that require Congress — not the president — to allocate spending.

Either way, as Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School (and a member of the Deseret News editorial advisory board) has put it, "A failure to raise the debt limit would force the president to break the law. The only question is which one."

To be clear, we firmly believe in fiscal responsibility. But we also believe that there are mature and responsible ways to achieve it, and that toying with default is not one of them. Rather, as America finally brings expenditures and revenues into alignment, it must also honor the promises it has made, whether in the form of bonds or other legally-defined obligations. Congress can cut up some of the nation's credit cards, but it cannot irresponsibly shred the credit card statements. We must pay the bills racked up over the past 10 years, however painful.

What will happen if the debt limit isn't raised? None of the possible scenarios is attractive. Let's not find out.

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