Every time Congress dithers on raising the debt ceiling, the Treasury Department is forced to take “extraordinary measures” to make sure it has enough cash to pay the country’s bills in full and on time without hitting the ceiling. Kellie Mejdrich at Roll Call reminds us that these measures come with a considerable cost, even without a default on the debt.
The Treasury began employing extraordinary measures last March, when the suspension of the debt limit brokered in a budget deal in November 2016 expired. With the debt ceiling back in force, the Treasury had to look for ways to avoid hitting the limit, currently $19.8 trillion. Treasury has several options — it defines four of them here — which involve not spending all of the money is it legally authorized to spend. For example, the Treasury may avoid making full investments in pension and savings accounts of government employees, delaying payments until a later date.
These measures tend to make the financial markets nervous, especially over time as the threat of default grows, which can move interest rates higher than they otherwise would be. The Bipartisan Policy Center points out that the current debt ceiling impasse sent short-term Treasury bill rates higher in July, raising the costs of issuing debt for the U.S. government.
Looking back at the debt ceiling brinksmanship of 2011-2012, the Government Accountability Office concluded that delaying the increase in the debt limit cost the Treasury at least $1.3 billion:
“Delays in raising the debt limit can create uncertainty in the Treasury market and lead to higher Treasury borrowing costs. GAO estimated that delays in raising the debt limit in 2011 led to an increase in Treasury’s borrowing costs of about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2011. However, this does not account for the multiyear effects on increased costs for Treasury securities that will remain outstanding after fiscal year 2011. Further, according to Treasury officials, the increased focus on debt limit-related operations as such delays occurred required more time and Treasury resources and diverted Treasury’s staff away from other important cash and debt management responsibilities.”