Limit the Real Debt
The debt limit covers two very different types of obligations.

The debate this summer over raising the debt limit promises to be intense, and perhaps divisive, but it also provides an opportunity for meaningful fiscal reform. The unprecedented public attention focused on this relatively arcane economic tool can help return the country to a sustainable, rational path; foster a renewed sense of freedom; and create a new era of prosperity by making government smaller, less intrusive, and less burdensome.

The debt limit is an instrument established by Congress to limit the Treasury Department's ability to borrow, but it has increasingly lost its effectiveness. It has been waived ten times in the last decade. And a vote to increase the debt limit has often been, ironically, tied to "must pass" spending increases. In one sense, then, the fact that the debate is now focused on how much to cut government spending suggests that the tide has finally turned.

Conservatives are rightly interested in the magnitude of the change and not merely its direction. Many members of Congress have declared that they will support a debt-limit increase only if it is accompanied by something "really big"--a balanced-budget amendment, entitlement reform, more discretionary cuts, budget-process reform, or all of the above.

Despite this progress, we believe something is still missing. While we applaud the recognition that spending cuts are necessary, the debate still lacks a clear focus on the trigger itself--the debt limit.

Quite simply, the debt limit as currently constructed is practically meaningless. The debt it caps includes both the massive borrowing that our federal government has undertaken, and trillions of dollars of intragovernmental debt--the latter of which accrues when a federal program borrows from another federal program's surpluses. By commingling these obligations under one limit, the government has created confusion and clutter, not clarity or transparency.

To better illustrate this point, imagine that you have a checking account, a savings account, and a mortgage. The money in the savings account is for retirement, but sometimes you have an extra expense and need to dip into those savings temporarily. Every time you transfer funds from your savings to your checking account, you write an IOU to yourself to remember to replenish the savings as soon as you can. If you were to total your debt by adding all these IOUs to your mortgage, this would be comparable to the way the U.S. government currently measures its debt for the purposes of the debt limit. Over 30 percent of the U.S. government's debt is made up of IOUs between various government accounts.

Intragovernmental debt is not a measure of the federal government's obligation to bondholders. Rather, it reflects the left hand of government borrowing from the right hand. Put differently, if the balanced-budget amendment were put into effect tomorrow, and our spending instantly matched our revenue dollar for dollar, we would still need to raise the debt limit eventually because of borrowing across various federal trust funds.

We propose the following reforms to distinguish between the two components of the debt limit, which, when mixed together, cause it to become meaningless.

First, the debt subject to the debt limit should be redefined to include only the total of all debt instruments held by the public. That's what the Framers had in mind when they gave Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States. Currently, debt held by the public is $9.6 trillion, or roughly two-thirds the size of the U.S. economy. If publicly held debt as a share of the overall economy continues to rise to out-of-control levels, it will pose a genuine risk to the sustainability of our economy.

Second, Congress should develop uniform standards for regular, plain-English disclosure to the public of all unfunded governmental obligations, separate and distinct from the publicly held debt. The Medicare and Social Security Trustees recently issued their annual report, which again reiterated the massive imbalance facing our major entitlement programs, but these reports are densely written and not widely read. One option for improved transparency would be for the Social Security Administration, in the annual account statements it sends to every worker, to disclose the magnitude of the unfunded liability and its effect, if left unaddressed, on every future retiree. By making the magnitude of the problem clearer to voters, this disclosure would make it more difficult for Congress to avoid or delay action. Denying or ignoring the risks posed by runaway entitlement spending will only force more draconian cuts down the road.

Our spending problems won't solve themselves. In fact, they will only get worse if they are not addressed. The current debt-limit debate can serve as an opportunity to force action. But it would be short-sighted of legislators to fail to take the opportunity to reform this tool so as to keep themselves and their successors focused on the right fiscal metric: ensuring that our government's public debt is held to a sustainable level.

Alex Brill is a research fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Alex Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies the impact of tax policy on the US economy as well as the fiscal, economic, and political consequences of tax, budget, health care, retirement security, and trade policies. He also works on health care reform, pharmaceutical spending and drug innovation, and unemployment insurance reform. Brill is the author of a pro-growth proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and “The Real Tax Burden: More than Dollars and Cents” (2011), coauthored with Alan D. Viard. He has testified numerous times before Congress on tax policy, labor markets and unemployment insurance, Social Security reform, fiscal stimulus, the manufacturing sector, and biologic drug competition.

    Before joining AEI, Brill served as the policy director and chief economist of the House Ways and Means Committee. Previously, he served on the staff of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He has also served on the staff of the President's Fiscal Commission (Simpson-Bowles) and the Republican Platform Committee (2008).

    Brill has an M.A. in mathematical finance from Boston University and a B.A. in economics from Tufts University.

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