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Less than a month to go! Republicans are chasing wild geese while the federal government heads toward default

Canadian GeeseThere’s less than one month to go until the federal government can’t fudge its debt limit anymore. Last week, the US Treasury announced it could run out of artificially-created “headroom” as soon as mid-February.

Ever since then, Republicans have been trying to turn the debt-limit headlines to their advantage. But if you look closely enough at these “wild goose chases”, they just show the growing distance between GOP rhetoric and the reality the rest of us are living in.

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Their first idea? Wait things out. Then, once the Treasury runs out of headroom, just pick and choose which bills to pay. Or, in Republican-speak, “prioritize spending.” Their priorities, according to Reuters: pay the bondholders first; then pay Social Security and military salaries.

The first problem with this idea? The Treasury’s Inspector General has already told Congress that “prioritizing spending” is not – at this point in the crisis – actually possible.

Treasury noted that it makes more than 80 million payments per month, all of which have been authorized and appropriated by Congress… Treasury’s [accounting and computer] systems are designed to make each payment in the order it comes due.

In other words, the system simply isn’t set up to pay some bills and ignore others. How long would it take to completely restructure the federal government’s payment systems, in order to “prioritize” which bills get paid? Undoubtedly longer than the debt-limit “headroom” will last.

Second problem with this idea? How much money will it cost, to restructure the Treasury’s payment systems? Maybe some GOP campaign contributor would be the only IT vendor qualified to make those changes. But wouldn’t that money be better spent on other things?

Third problem with this idea? Stop and think about this, for a minute. Do we really want our country to stop paying its bills, even just some of its bills? Do we really want our country to fulfill its obligations to a select few, and ignore the rest? What would that say about America? (Maybe this is really the first problem with this idea. What are the Republicans thinking?)

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So then, the Republicans went off to a retreat at the Kingsmill Resort in Virginia. (I’m guessing the GOP missed the irony in starting Martin Luther King Day weekend at a former slave plantation. Whatever happened to the Party of Abraham Lincoln?)

There, among three championship-caliber golf courses, GOP members announced their newest idea to deal with the debt limit crisis. The House GOP will concede to a three-month increase in the debt limit, but only if Congress passes a budget within those three months.

Peter PanOk, it’s starting to sound like Peter Pan’s “Neverland” here. Congress created the debt-limit crisis by approving spending but refusing to authorize the debt limit increase. Now the GOP wants to postpone that crisis by creating another crisis.

If nothing else, this really ought to draw attention to just how dysfunctional Congress has become in recent years. They’re answering one failure of Congress with another failure of Congress.

Yes, passing a budget is one of the Legislature’s most fundamental responsibilities. And yes, it has been years since Congress actually passed a federal budget. But isn’t it time to ask, why?

Think about the usual budget process (which is very similar to the way New Hampshire’s Legislature passes the state budget). Usually, the House passes a version of the budget. Then the Senate passes a version of the budget. Then a conference committee figures out a compromise between the two versions. Then the conference version goes back to the House and the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

Do you really think the House and Senate are going to be able to agree on a version of the budget in the next three months?  Congress has been at a stalemate for years.  The last Congress was the most unproductive Congress since they started keeping records.  [Want to know what they did manage to agree on? 17% of the bills that were actually passed involved naming post offices or other public buildings].

But now, after a few days’ “retreat” at a plantation-turned-resort, House GOP members think they’re going to be able to turn this situation to their advantage.

No word yet on whether this latest Republican goose-chase is going to amount to anything more than just weekend headlines.

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Wondering what’s the latest on that “headroom”?

If you remember, our federal government hit the debt limit on December 31st, and the US Treasury started taking “extraordinary measures” to keep the country from defaulting on its obligations.

Smashed Piggy Bank RetirementLast week, the Treasury started starting paying government bills by using federal employee retirement funds to create “headroom” under the debt limit. The “G Fund” is a 401(k)-style retirement program with more than 3 million enrollees, including members of the military.

The law allowing retirement monies to be used to create “headroom” also promises to make members’ accounts “whole” after the crisis has passed. That’s what happened the last time there was a debt limit crisis, back in August 2011; and what happened after the debt-limit crises in 2006, 2004, 2003, and 2002. [Wait… am I just imagining there’s a correlation between debt-limit crises and the Bush-era tax cuts?]

But there’s no word on what happens if this particular debt-limit crisis isn’t solved.

And, no word on what happens if House Republicans decide they want to “reform” federal employees’ retirement benefits again.

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And yes, those unaffordable-but-Congressionally-mandated US Postal Service payments are part of the “extraordinary measures” the Treasury is now taking to keep our government from defaulting on our debt.

“The Postal Service would still have positive net revenue today except for … a requirement that Congress imposed on it in 2006. No other public or private business in America faces this onerous requirement.” Read the letter signed by 82 Members of Congress here.

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One last word about Paul Ryan: he must truly be a special guy. Ordinarily, he would have been replaced as House Budget Committee Chairman this year because of GOP “term limits”. It looks like at least three other GOP Committee Chairs will lose their positions, but Speaker Boehner has already decided to give Chairman Ryan a waiver and allow him to stay on. Read more here.

Adding ‘Headroom’ to the Debt Limit? Thank our Federal Employees and Postal Carriers

US CapitolA few days ago, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Congress that the federal government would reach its debt limit at the end of this year.  As of January 1st, Secretary Geithner will be taking “extraordinary measures” to buy another two months’ time  for Congress to resolve its self-created fiscal cliff/debt limit crisis.

What are those “extraordinary measures”?  Almost all of them involve using the retirement funds of federal employees and postal workers to create artificial “headroom” under the debt limit.  You can read the details here.

Create your own fiscal crisis… then use it as justification to borrow from employees’ retirement funds (while complaining that long-promised retirement benefits are “not affordable”).  That’s what politicians tried to do here in New Hampshire, back in the early 1980s.

We’re having déjà vu all over again, watching the same scenario play out on the national stage all these decades later.

As of Tuesday, federal and postal employees’ retirement funds will become “headroom” under the debt limit.  Maybe the extra two months will give Speaker Boehner time to reconsider the GOP’s  allegiance to the ultra-rich.  Maybe it will give Congress time to fix the crisis it created.

In the meantime: to all those federal employees and postal carriers out there, “Thanks for the headroom!”

Read more about political attacks on federal employees here.

Read more about political attacks on the US Postal Service here.

 

Using Retirement Funds to Balance the Budget


Up here in New Hampshire, we have some experience with politicians trying to use public workers’ retirement funds to balance the budget.

Back when Craig Benson was Governor, he wanted to use money from the public employee retirement system to balance the state budget.

But up here in New Hampshire, the public didn’t let him get away with that.  In 1984, Granite State voters amended our state Constitution to protect our employees’ retirement benefits.  New Hampshire Constitution Article 36-a [Use of Retirement Funds] provides:

“The employer contributions certified as payable to the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be appropriated each fiscal year … All of the assets and proceeds, and income there from, of the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be held, invested or disbursed as in trust for the exclusive purpose of providing for such benefits and shall not be encumbered for, or diverted to, any other purposes.”

Down in Washington DC, the federal government hasn’t been quite so careful.  Down in DC, public employee retirement funds are regularly used to balance the budget.

In fact, when the federal government hit the debt ceiling in May 2011, public employee retirement contributions were used to keep the federal government going for more than two months (until Congressional Republicans finally agreed to increase the debt limit).

At last report,

  • more than $800 billion of the federal debt was owed to the federal employees’ retirement system;
  • more than $600 billion of the federal debt was owed to military employees’ retirement programs;
  • more than $45 billion of the federal debt was owed to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.

State and local employees also own a significant chunk of the federal debt.  At last report, pension systems for state and local government employees held almost $190 billion in Treasury securities.

Adding it all up, the nation owes about $1.6 trillion to the various public employees’ retirement systems.  (That’s direct debt – not including unfunded liabilities.)

That’s only slightly more than what tax cuts for the wealthiest 5% have cost the Treasury since 2001.

Should we really be surprised that right-wing Republicans are trying so hard to “reform” public pensions?

The business lobbying group ALEC (“American Legislative Exchange Council”) has led the crusade.  “Taxpayers are no longer willing to bear the increasing cost of these plans… They are demanding reforms that will bring these plans into line with pension and OPEB benefits offered in the private sector.”  (What an interesting comparison!  Federal law generally prohibits private sector pension plans from loaning money to the company that sponsors the plan.)

As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan followed ALEC’s lead – almost word-for-word.

Up here in the Granite State, we believe that government should fulfill the promises it has made to its employees.  We even amended our state constitution to ensure that public employees’ retirement funds would be used only to pay retirement benefits.

It’s time for the country to stop using public employee retirement funds to pay the cost of extending tax cuts for the wealthy.

It’s time for Congressional Republicans to stop trying to weasel out of their obligations to federal employees.

It’s time to keep the country’s promises.  (Now that’s a conservative value.)

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Wait!  That $45 billion borrowed from the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund deserves a closer look.

The Post Office is losing money.  Most of that deficit is being caused by Congressionally-mandated payments to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.   That mandate dates back to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.

Guess what else happened in 2006?  Just months before Congress decided to have the Postal Service pre-fund retiree benefits (and loan that money to the US Treasury), the country had hit the debt ceiling, and had borrowed from the federal employees’ retirement system to pay the bills.

(No, by the time 2006 rolled around, the Bush tax cuts hadn’t “jump started” the economy or started to erase the federal debt.  So Congress used federal employees’ retirement contributions as a Rainy Day Fund.)

Kind of convenient, isn’t it?  The country needs to borrow money, and suddenly there’s a new Fund to borrow from.

Only now, that Fund is drowning the Postal Service in debt.

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