The U.S. economy is the strongest it has been in years; unemployment is low, wages are increasing and inflation is declining. In January, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced that the United States had reached its legal debt limit and began implementing “extraordinary measures” to ensure the U.S. could continue to pay its obligations. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by late spring or early summer, the United States will be unable to pay its bills and, for the first time in history, could default on its debt. This catastrophic failure would destabilize the U.S. and global economies, and threaten the livelihoods of millions of working people.
Some members of Congress would like to use the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip and are threatening to hold hostage the nation’s finances until they get the spending cuts they’ve been unable to achieve during the regular appropriations process. Cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and making drastic reductions in domestic spending have been suggested as ransom for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. These same members are willing to threaten the family budgets of federal employees by having them work without pay should the Treasury Department have to make hard choices about what bills it will not pay.
Fortunately, President Biden and Democratic congressional leaders have said they will not negotiate over spending cuts in order to raise the debt ceiling. The AFL-CIO supports their position and urges Congress to raise the debt ceiling without preconditions. Threatening to hold hostage the full faith and credit of the U.S. by refusing to pass a debt limit increase is extreme and must be rejected.
Raising the debt limit does not authorize any new spending commitments. It simply allows the U.S. government to finance existing legal obligations previous Congresses and presidents of both parties made to guarantee the retirement security of the American people. Since 1960, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 78 separate times—49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents. This is a basic function of governing and should never be allowed to lead to a game of brinkmanship.
The AFL-CIO calls on Congress to act responsibly and increase the debt limit without preconditions, and to reject efforts to use the full faith and credit of the United States to extract spending decisions that should be the subject of negotiations during the annual budget and appropriations process.