Fox News downplayed the immediacy of the upcoming debt ceiling deadline, giving credence to congressional Republicans' plan to use the threat of default as a means of gutting the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
On September 25, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent a letter to congressional leadership in the House and Senate regarding the state of government finances. Lew specifically emphasized the consequences of failing to lift the federal debt limit by October 17. From the letter:
Treasury now estimates that extraordinary measures will be exhausted no later than October 17. We estimate that, at that point, Treasury would have only approximately $30 billion to meet our country's commitments. This amount would be far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion. If we have insufficient cash on hand, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history.
On the September 25 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, host Jenna Lee and Fox Business host Neil Cavuto discussed the upcoming October 17 deadline to raise the debt limit. Cavuto recognized the fact that a failure to lift the debt ceiling would have far more dramatic consequences than a simple government shutdown, but also specifically rebuffed the nature of a firm deadline, claiming:
CAVUTO: Never believe those figures, Jenna, because every Treasury Secretary, be it a Republican or Democratic administration, has always cried panic and always attached a date that is really just made up.
Cavuto outlined the means by which congressional Republicans could use the threat of breaching the debt limit to extract concessions on the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, which could range from delaying to defunding key initiatives of the law. In fact, The Hill reported that Republicans in the House of Representatives plan on tying any increase of the debt limit to a one-year delay of Obamacare. From The Hill:
Moving to the debt ceiling fight, which Republican leaders have long seen as stronger ground, could be a way to convince rank-and-file Republicans to fight their spending and healthcare battles there rather than on a government funding bill.
Cavuto's caution that listeners should "never believe" Treasury Department deadlines, and the claim that these deadlines are "really just made up," directly contradicts the facts presented by Lew.
According to Treasury estimates, the United States government will have merely $30 billion in liquid assets on hand by October 17. By Lew's own admission, this sum, equivalent to roughly 0.75 percent of annual federal outlays, would be insufficient to meet the obligated expenses of certain individual days. Contrary to Cavuto's claims that the government could use flexible accounting to sustain itself for months without a debt limit increase, those so-called "extraordinary measures" have been in place since May 17 and are now at their limit.
If the debt ceiling is not lifted by October 17, the United States government will be unable to finance the payment of its pre-existing expenses through the continued sale of Treasury bonds. This would have all of the effects of a government shutdown -- outlays to certain program beneficiaries, employees, the military, etc. would cease or be delayed -- while also initiating a global financial crisis among corporate and sovereign wealth funds that own or purchase American debt.
According to The New York Times, the Treasury makes more than 80 million individual payments each month, and would miss nearly one-third of those regular payments every day until the debt ceiling was lifted. A $12 billion Social Security payment is due on October 23 and a $6 billion interest payment on public debt is due October 31. These alone would virtually exhaust the Treasury's remaining resources if Congress fails to act.
The notion that Republicans might be able to string a debt limit increase along for months as they negotiate attacks against Obamacare ignores both the economic consequences of a debt default and the political reality in Washington. The last legitimate Republican threat to breach the debt ceiling resulted in the first ever downgrade of the United States Department of Treasury bond rating -- from AAA to AA+. This downgrade marginally increased the cost of future American borrowing and, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, will cost taxpayers an additional $18.9 billion over the coming decade.
Increasing the debt limit does not increase the national debt, but manufacturing a crisis by using the debt limit to leverage political concessions has already cost taxpayers.