But there are some key differences with households: While a homeowner might juggle a dozen or so monthly bills, Lew has to figure out which of more than 100 million monthly government payments to make. Because the government payment system is largely automated, Lew can't just decide not write a check here or there. He has to figure out how to transform a system designed to pay all of America's bills in full and in a timely way, to one that pays some of its bills, and not others.
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While a household juggles not paying the electricity or the cable bills, Lew will have to juggle not paying a retiree in favor of a soldier, or not paying the soldier in favor of sending out tax refunds.
Experts believe the government will have two choices if the debt ceiling is breached and neither looks that pleasant from Lew's perspective.
Prioritization: Under this plan, the Treasury would decide which bills to pay. That means some difficult political choices that it admittedly doesn't want to make and doesn't have the authority to make. For example, it could be forced to pay interest on the debt, but not food stamps; it could pay active duty military personnel, but not veterans' benefits. Under this plan, in about the first month of breaching the debt ceiling, the Treasury will have to decide not to pay one out of every $3 that the government is obligated to pay.
Sounds tough, but is it doable? Not according to Treasury officials. They say that the Treasury's payment system is not capable of making those choices and it would require massive reprogramming of the system. More so, they question the legality of those choices. "Treasury officials determined there is no fair or sensible way to pick and choose,'' according to the Congressional Research Service.
There is also no legal basis. Treasury officials believe Congress' laws to spend money on national parks has the same standing as the law to pay for nuclear missiles. To be sure, there is a separate payment system of the military which complicates prioritization enormously. In addition, the Treasury could run afoul, in making those choices, of laws that prohibit the administration from NOT spending appropriated money.
All of this is the mechanical and legal side of the problem. It's before the political firestorms arrive, where each constituency trumpets the national security, fairness and health and safety necessity of paying their particular bills. The heat the administration is taking now for its choices under the government shutdown will be like a matchstick compared to the political bonfires that will burn if the debt ceiling is breached.