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October 07, 2013 1:19 PM Defining Default Down

By Ed Kilgore

An important detail to keep in mind when one is trying to reconcile Republicans claims that they won’t allow a debt default but also won’t allow a vote on increasing the debt limit unless Democrats make concessions is this: conservatives tend to have a rather eccentric definition of what constitutes a “default.” National Journal’s Tim Alberta and Michael Catalini offered a reminder yesterday:

Not only do some conservatives say Oct. 17 is an artificial deadline—“Nobody thinks we’re going to default on Oct. 17th,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.—but they also are attempting to narrowly define what would constitute default.
In interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers, the Republicans rejected the notion that Washington could default on its debt unless a borrowing increase is approved before Oct. 17. For the United States to actually default, these Republicans argue, the Treasury Department would have to stop paying interest on its debts—something GOP lawmakers claim is inconceivable….
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it has been Republicans’ line of attack since their debt-ceiling battle with Obama in the summer of 2011.
Then, as now, the GOP argues it’s not the debt limit that would cause default, it’s Obama. The country would have the funds to pay its creditors if the administration would just delay payments to certain agencies.

This “prioritization” argument, of course, rests on a distinction without a difference in the real world.

“I don’t know any serious person who doesn’t think this will be cataclysmic,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee and now senior director with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The assumption that the U.S. will honor all of its debts—and honor them on time—is the foundation for much of the global financial system, Bell argues. So the fundamental problem with the Republican position is that Treasury makes between 3 million and 5 million financial transactions a day, and if the federal government starts to pick and choose which it will honor, it will land the economy in chaos.

In any event, journalists reporting all these “We won’t allow a default” assurances from John Boehner and others need to go to the trouble of insisting on a definition of terms. If the reference is to a narrow, “technical” default along the lines that Republicans often use, the assurances are virtually worthless.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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