Friday, October 11, 2013

Debt Limit Extraordinary Measures Should Be Repealed.

The House is proposing to eliminate the "extraordinary measures" that delay hitting the debt ceiling. Some people think this is a bad idea or a poison pill but it is not. These special procedures started out as a method to give the Treasury flexibility but have turned into something completely different. They have essentially allowed the Republicans to force a delay in when we hit the debt limit by essentially requiring the Treasury to take money from the civil service retirement fund the federal employees 401(k) plan and other sources. In doing so all they have done is delay the inevitable. Moreover, they have added uncertainty to the process, something that increases the danger that the debt limit will be crossed.

Here is the type of announcement the Treasury uses to invoke the special measures:

Today, the United States has reached the statutory debt limit. Secretary Geithner sent the following letter to Congress this morning alerting them to actions that have be taken to create additional headroom under the debt limit so that Treasury can continue funding obligations made by Congresses past and present. The Secretary declared a "debt issuance suspension period" for the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund, permitting Treasury to redeem a portion of existing Treasury securities held by that fund as investments and suspend issuance of new Treasury securities to that fund as investments. He also suspended the daily reinvestment of Treasury securities held as investments by the Government Securities Investment Fund of the Federal Employees’ Retirement System Thrift Savings Plan. For more information on these measures, please read this FAQ.

These are but two of the several measures the Treasury uses to delay the day of reckoning. Treasury takes civil-service retirement contributions and instead of investing them in securities, uses them to pay other obligations. It also takes money contributed by federal employees to their 401(k) and instead of investing it, uses that money to pay off other obligations.

It should be noted that this is not what happens with Social Security and other trust funds. This is something totally different and pernicious and it only affects Federal employee money and some other things like the issuance of State and Local Government Series Treasury Securities.

Under normal circumstances all trust fund accounts, whether Social Security, Medicare, Highway Trust Fund, Civil Service Retirement Fund, et al., are invested in special issue Treasury instruments and are part of the national debt. They are under the heading of Debt Not Held By The Public.

But there is a law that applies to Civil Service Retirement Trust funds that allows Treasury to cancel the instruments in the CSRS fund when it reaches the debt ceiling. Once those instruments are cancelled, the national debt is reduced by that amount and the money can be spent for expenses, like Boehner's salary. The law requires the money to eventually be paid back, but for now the instruments are gone. This debt cancellation cannot be done with the Social Security or most other trust funds.

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) funds can also be raided under these procedures. The TSP is a 401k administered by a separate board. Federal employees have many choices of where to invest their funds including, stocks, bonds, real estate and Government Securities. This law applies only to money in the G Fund and it allows Treasury to cancel those government securities and spend the money. Also new money designated for the G Fund can be directly spent. Again, the law says it must be redeposited later, but right now the debt is cancelled, and that is why it doesn't it isn't part of the national debt.

Congress should eliminate the authority for these special measures. What started out as something to be used rarely and only in extraordinary circumstances has now been used every time we reach the debt limit and has merely delayed when the final day of reckoning arrives. These extraordinary measures hurt the process by adding uncertainty and confusion and creating the impression the Treasury has some magical tricks that can prevent debt limit catastrophe. And once again it is federal employees who are the victims of Congress' incompetence.

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