Debt Ceiling

Buffett and Bernanke Push to Keep the Debt-Ceiling Drama out of Reruns


Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, at Georgetown University in Washington, on Sept. 19

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, at Georgetown University in Washington, on Sept. 19

After the season finale of the debt-ceiling drama—complete with a yelling congressional stenographer—the wait for the show’s next season already seems unbearable. While overseas markets cheered the cliffhanger conclusion as U.S. politicians decided to let the government borrow enough to pay its bills, everyone knows it’s just a pause until early next year, when Republicans and Democrats resume their high-stakes game of chicken. The anxiety alone could cost the U.S. billions, given the confidence in the current cast of characters in Congress.

That’s why a growing chorus of leaders is trying to cancel the drama debt-ceiling show altogether and depoliticize U.S. creditworthiness. And what better front man to make the case to Main Street than Warren Buffett? The Sage of Omaha, who famously called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction,” made similar waves by dubbing the debt ceiling a “political weapon of mass destruction.” He tossed in the term “nuclear bomb” for good measure, noting in an interview with Fortune’s Carol Loomis that creditworthiness is “like virginity, it can be preserved but it can’t be destroyed.”

Outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, no stranger to the nausea-inducing exercise of watching debt-ceiling debates, is also no fan of allowing even one more episode of this nail-biting show. He compares it with a family that votes on paying its credit card bill. After all those years of trying to build confidence by buying massive quantities of Treasury bonds, seeing Congress derail those efforts has to hurt.

Who else hates it? Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for one, told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt that the country “absolutely” should eliminate the ceiling. Former Congressional Budget Office chief Rudolph Penner calls it a “stupid law.” There’s Mad Money host Jim Cramer, who says the market forces keep government debt in check, nullifying the need for Congress to play that role. Bloomberg View columnist Ezra Klein calls in an anachronism.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, in a Facebook (FB) post earlier this week, went so far as to suggest that defaulting on our national debt was an “impeachable offense.” Then again, she added that any move to “unilaterally raise the debt limit without Congress is also an impeachable offense.” So perhaps count Palin out of the end-the-debt-ceiling brigade.

The utility of the debt ceiling is clearest to those who have the power to get rid of it: Congress. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz was quick to defend linking Obamacare to the debt debate, saying previous members of Congress had done the same. He has a point. The idea of using America’s fiscal reputation as a bargaining chip doesn’t seem so ridiculous when it works. With nothing to show for it, however, perhaps some members of Congress will see things more like Buffett and become convinced that the show must not go on.

Brady_190
Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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