For the eleventh time in the last ten years, Washington is debating raising the federal debt ceiling. It's been an uncomfortable vote in the past: Congress is much more comfortable supporting spending programs than actually having to account for the tab they create.
Yet this debt ceiling debate is different. A few fiscal conservatives always seize on the occasion to highlight Washington's profligacy and waste, but in years past, even the most sincere knew that it would, at best, be an educational exercise for the public. There was no real expectation that the ceiling wouldn't inch up again, and Washington continue with business as usual.
Not so this time around. The Treasury Secretary and White House economists trumpet warnings of economic calamity if the debt ceiling isn't raised. Members aren't buying it. They are listening to the credit rating agencies, international economists, and other entities not under Washington's thumb that warn not about failure to raise the debt limit, but about the U.S.'s current trajectory of debt, which is unsustainable and not just in the long-term. Those around the world shudder when contemplating what a U.S. economy, buried under Greek-like levels of debt, will mean for the world economy.
The public also increasingly understands that failing to raise the debt ceiling doesn't mean default. Even after the new drop dead August deadline pronounced by the Treasury Secretary (yes, that's about the fourth deadline he's offered), the federal government will have enough income to make payments on loans. Rather than defaulting, government officials could choose to cut funds to other government spending programs and keep paying loan obligations.
Benefactors of business-as-usual Washington will want to make that potential scenario as frightening and unthinkable as an actual default. If cuts have to be made, they'll suggest we start with the military. Soldiers in harms way won't get paid on time, because Radical Right Wingers want to grandstand about deficits, rather than doing the grown-up thing and just raising the debt ceiling. That may be the line they'll push, but they are likely to find a skeptical public.