Debt on Arrival

Aug. 2 deadline looms for U.S. debt ceiling

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Government inhales money like most of us inhale air. Listen to the "Minute Waltz" and the United States government has borrowed $4 million. Boil an egg and in the same amount of time, feds have borrowed $20 million. How did you sleep last night? While you were slumbering, the United States borrowed approximately $1.6 billion.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons, the United States increases its debt by about $20,000 every three-tenths of a second. In the approximate time it will take you to read this story, the United States will accumulate about $12 million in additional debt.

Through much of the past week, BW listened to an array of Idahoans on the issue, including business owners, retirees and students. Those we interviewed called the nation's debt ceiling everything from "nasty" to "ugly" to "armageddon," and the running theme of comments channeled anger or frustration.

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"It's out of control," said Boise engineer Bruce Daybell.

"It's discouraging," said Tracy Bideganeta, a Mountain Home pharmacist. "We're passing that onto our children."

"The government has spent money that we don't have," said retiree Linda Loucks.

"Congress will play this for as many votes as they can," said Harry Tumanjan, a financial consultant. "Completely irresponsible."

While most citizens BW spoke to didn't know the exact amount of the current debt ceiling, the majority understood the concept.

At the end of 2010, the government owed a grand total of $13.9 trillion. The debt has since increased to a grander total of $14.3 trillion. The national debt is the sum of all current loans taken out by the government, and the debt ceiling is akin to a limit on a national credit card. Since 1960, Congress has raised, extended or revised the debt ceiling 78 times--49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents.

This year, a GOP-controlled House of Representatives, fed up with what it calls runaway spending, wants to begin and end most negotiations over the debt ceiling with proposed cuts--big ones.

"This is a spending crisis, first and foremost," Rep. Raul Labrador told BW. "First, we should cut our annual deficit in half by reducing spending by about $400 billion. Second, we should cap federal spending to roughly 18 percent of our gross domestic product."

Third, Labrador advocates a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, similar to Idaho's constitutional requirement.

"We are truly in uncharted waters," Sen. Jim Risch told BW. "It's staggering. I ask every economist, 'How do you see this playing out?' There are some that are bombastic and they think they know everything, but there isn't anyone who thinks this is going to end well."

Risch, a 40-year veteran of politics, thinks he knows political one-upmanship when he sees it.

"This is saber rattling," said Risch. "In the end, it will be the people in the middle, not those of us on the right or those on the far left that will resolve this."

Risch likes to refer to what he calls "a basic truth" in the nation's capital.

"None of these things ever get resolved until they have to," he said. "And that's usually at the last moment."

Sen. Mike Crapo agrees that, while the dilemma will probably go right down to the wire, the political game of chicken has to end at some point.

"Congress will not allow--and I'm certain the Obama administration will not allow--the United States to default on its debt-issued bonds."

Crapo was referring to Treasury Bonds, or T-bonds. America raises money by selling debt in the form of Treasury bonds, the government's version of an IOU, sitting in safe deposit boxes across America. A fair amount of IOUs are also in the hands of the Chinese and Japanese central banks.

"You hear a lot about China, because we're afraid of them these days," said economist Dr. Don Holley. "But Japan holds almost as much." According to the Treasury, China holds $1.1 trillion and Japan holds $900 billion in U.S. debt.

Holley, who has taught economics at Boise State since 1973, doesn't travel far without pad and pencil. He likes to draw supply-and-demand charts as he talks (he started drawing less than five minutes into our conversation).

"You want to track the economy? Track the spending," said Holley, while making a list of indicators that drive America's economic engine: consumer spending, investment spending (in plants and machinery), foreign investment (in our exports) and government spending.

"If we start spending less as a government, it will weaken our economy," said Holley. "It would, quite simply, make the recession worse.

"Let's say the Republicans get their way to cut government. It will have a significant multiplier effect," he said while drawing another chart. "If 50,000 government employees are laid off, that could easily translate to 150,000 layoffs nationwide."

Holley admits that when politicians start talking about billions or trillions of dollars, citizens' eyes glaze over.

But a comparison to Idaho might offer some more perspective.

The United States borrows approximately $4 billion daily. In comparison, the state of Idaho's entire annual budget for government services, including public schools, is about $2.25 billion per year. Simply put, every 12 hours, the federal government borrows the equivalent of Idaho's entire annual running costs.