If Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2, the U.S. Treasury will run out of cash to pay all of its bills, forcing the government to start making some huge cuts. President Obama said Tuesday that Social Security payments could be one of the casualties. "I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on Aug. 3 if we haven't resolved this issue," the president told CBS News. "There may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it." Furious conservatives immediately accused Obama of "fear-mongering," while liberals said it was high time Obama "threw down his ace in the hole" to kick-start stalled deficit talks. Is Obama bluffing?
Obama played the wrong card: I get why Obama wants to "scare retirees" to get his deal, says Andrew Biggs at the American Enterprise Institute. But he picked a weak "stick with which to beat congressional Republicans." Social Security is protected, with both its own dedicated tax and a trust fund holding $2.6 trillion in Treasury bonds. Even if the feds have to triage payments in the face of a cash crunch, under the 14th Amendment, Social Security is constitutionally in the "first tier of creditors, along with Wall Street and the Chinese." Retirees need not worry.
"Would Social Security benefits be cut if the debt limit is not increased?"
Actually, the president is right: As conservatives used to point out, under Supreme Court precedent there's "no legally enforceable right to Social Security benefits," says David Frum at FrumForum. That means grandma is at "the back of the line" when the spending ax falls, along with the unemployed and "soldiers in the field." So ironically, while the GOP plays its "bizarre game of threat and counter-threat," Obama's actually "channeling 100 percent classic conservative theory." Retirees' checks may indeed be in jeopardy.
"Social Security checks are not guaranteed"
Social Security may be the least of our worries: The fight over whether Obama is fear-mongering here is almost beside the point, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. If Congress is "stupid and irresponsible" enough to ignore the debt ceiling, the "immediate need to cut federal spending by 44 percent" would very quickly "suck more than a trillion dollars of liquidity out of the economy." Whether or not seniors miss a check, the private sector would take a huge hit.
"Even if there's no default, there will still be pain"