Debt ceiling, round two

The USA is once again on course for financial disaster through no fault but their own.

Remember the debt ceiling debacle, when the broken American political system led to the country losing its triple-A credit rating, and nearly resulted in the largest economy in the world defaulting on its debt? Well, joy of joys, in nine months, it's all going to happen again.

The problem is the basic disagreement was never actually resolved, but merely postponed until after the election so that the Republicans could get back to the important business of tearing their party apart with excruciating primaries and loony-fringe candidates. The deal that raised the ceiling required a spending bill to be passed in both houses of congress that substantially removes the deficit. If no such bill is passed, then on January 1st 2013, a whole raft of automatic spending cuts are introduced at once, bringing in what American commentators breathlessly describe as "European levels of austerity".

Not only that, but on the same day those cuts come in, the the Bush tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cuts both expire, increasing the tax burden on millions of Americans. Oh, and emergency unemployment benefits also time out.

Congress has had ample warning to sort out the mess (almost as much warning as it had before the initial face-off), but yesterday the House of Representatives rejected two possible solutions. The first, a bipartisan bill which has the most chance of passing in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was defeated 382-38; the second, the White House's preferred option, was unanimously rejected 414 to 0. Instead, it seems likely that the House will pass, along strict party lines, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan's bill, which has no hope of passing getting through any Democrats, calling as it does for "draconian reductions in the federal government's commitment to financing health care for the disabled, the elderly, and the poor", in the words of Slate's Matt Yglesias. So the Senate will reject the bill, and the whole damn thing will start again.

Faced with the unappealing task of repeating last summer, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke has weighed in, telling the House Financial Services Committee:

Under current law, on Jan. 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date.

All those things are hitting on the same day, basically. It’s quite a big event.

Barclays Capital has calculated that the combined effect of all these cuts hitting at once would wipe 2.8 per cent off the annualised growth rate for the first quarter of 2013, bringing them from 3 per cent to 0.2 per cent growth. For comparison, the UK – which is voluntarily enacting "European levels of austerity" – is currently forecast by the OBR to have 2.0 per cent growth over the year, and the OECD forecast yesterday had us on minus 0.4 per cent over the first quarter of 2012, with the USA already at growing at 3 per cent annualised.

The worst case scenario is unlikely to happen; just as an actual default was unlikely to happen when the debt ceiling needed to be raised. The most likely outcome is that Congress will simply postpone everything once again, renewing the tax cuts and shrinking, but not removing, the automatic spending cuts. But all of this has led Bloomberg's Clive Cook to declare:

But there’s a much bigger threat to U.S. power [than the growth of China]: the increasingly abject failure of the country’s own political class.

Congressman Paul Ryan. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.