Does It Matter If Congress Doesn't Raise the Debt Ceiling?
It would be difficult to predict which receipts would be paid and which would not, Bell said, noting that the Treasury Department processes between two and three million transactions each day, all of them computer-generated. The federal agencies, Bell said, submits its invoices to the Treasury and the Treasury disburses funds upon receipt. It's a computer-generated first-come, first-serve system and not possible to prioritize which invoices should be paid.
While the country has never defaulted, economists and analysts warn of dire consequences because it means a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace and the economy as a lot of people will go unpaid. Stan Collender, who has worked for the House and Senate Budget Committees, said default would create "a lot of uncertainty" in the marketplace and cause "hardships" for Americans.
It's not just government workers who might not receive their paychecks, but those who rely on Social Security, food stamps, disability, and Medicare. Additionally, for example, a small-business contractor doing repair work on a federal building in Iowa might not receive payment for work completed. That could make it difficult for him to pay his employees who worked the construction job.
Bell said default would have dire trickle-down consequences, including "a serious recession" caused by a situation where it's "very difficult to put the yolk back in the egg."
Adding another wrinkle to the equation is that Congress and the president would be operating under two contradictory laws. The Impoundment Control Act, which was passed to ensure the president doesn't pick and chose what government agencies and programs he wants funded, requires the president and agencies to pay its obligations, but the law Congress passed in 1917 creating the debt ceiling says Treasury can't spend if it's borrowing limit has been tapped. It's a legal battle that hasn't yet happened but one completely possible if the debt ceiling is not lifted.
And because of the impact on the markets, workers with retirement plans would see the consequences as international investors are likely to loose confidence in the American financial system. Both Bell and Collender predict international investors would loose confidence in U.S. securities and sell, causing interest rates to skyrocket and markets to plummet.
"This has the potential of impacting the whole financial system," Collander said.
The primer: The sequester is the ten-year, $1.2 trillion spending cut that would cut defense spending by 10 percent and domestic spending by about eight percent. It was the result of an agreement between President Obama and congressional leaders and was meant to be so hard to stomach that Congress would come up with an alternate plan to reduce the deficit. So far, it hasn't. It was supposed to go into effect on January 2, but was extended for two months as a result of the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal.
The impact: Much of the opposition was voiced from the Pentagon and defense contractors who say it would disrupt operations and leave contractors uncertain about the future of its contracts. But the domestic economy would also be impacted. A Congressional Research Service report said that as many as 2.1 million jobs would be lost should the sequester be implemented.