Yellen’s Debt Limit Warnings Went Unheeded, Leaving Her to Face Fallout

In the days after November’s midterm elections, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen was feeling upbeat about the fact that Democrats had performed better than expected and maintained control of the Senate.

But as she traveled to the Group of 20 leaders summit in Indonesia that month, she said Republicans taking control of the House posed a new threat to the U.S. economy.

“I always worry about the debt ceiling,” Ms. Yellen told The New York Times in an interview on her flight from New Delhi to Bali, Indonesia, in which she urged Democrats to use their remaining time in control of Washington to lift the debt limit beyond the 2024 elections. “Any way that Congress can find to get it done, I’m all for.”

Democrats did not heed Ms. Yellen’s advice. Instead, the United States has spent most of this year inching toward the brink of default as Republicans refused to raise or suspend the nation’s $31.4 trillion borrowing limit without capping spending and rolling back parts of President Biden’s agenda.

Christopher Campbell, who served as assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions from 2017 to 2018, said that given the rapidly approaching X-date, “one would expect” that “there would be quiet conversations between the Treasury Department and the White House around how they would manage a technical default and perhaps prioritization of payments.”

The Treasury Department has developed a default playbook from previous debt limit standoffs in 2011 and 2013. And Ms. Yellen has become quite familiar with those: During the last two significant standoffs — in 2011 and 2013 — she was a top Federal Reserve official contemplating how the central bank would try to contain fallout from a default.

Ms. Yellen was briefed on the Treasury’s plans during those debates and engaged in her own contingency discussions about how to stabilize the financial system in the event that the United States could not pay all of its bills on time.

According to the Fed’s transcripts, the Treasury Department did in fact plan to prioritize principal and interest payments to bondholders in the event that the X-date was breached. Although Treasury Department officials had trepidations about the idea, they had expressed to Fed officials that it could ultimately be done.

Fed officials also discussed steps that they could take to stabilize money markets and to prevent failed Treasury auctions from prompting a default even if the Treasury Department was successfully paying creditors. Ms. Yellen said in both 2011 and 2013 that she was on board with plans to protect the financial system.

“I expect that actions of this type might well prove unnecessary after the Treasury finally states that they do intend to pay principal and interest on time and we have finally issued our own set of policy statements,” Ms. Yellen said in 2011. “But if the stress nevertheless escalates, I’d support interventions to alleviate pressures on money market funds.”

Ms. Yellen added that she was concerned about how vulnerable market infrastructure was in the event of a default and said officials should be thinking about ways to plan for a default in the future.

“Given that we could face a similar situation somewhere down the road, I think it’s important for us to think about lessons learned so that we and markets will be better prepared if we face such a situation again,” Ms. Yellen said.

Eric Rosengren, who was the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 2011, said in an interview that he expected that Ms. Yellen, who is known for being rigorously prepared, was busy considering contingency plans as she did at the Fed more than a decade ago.

A White House official pointed out that Ms. Yellen has been the Biden administration’s primary messenger on the debt limit on the Sunday morning talk shows, and that she is coordinating on a daily basis with Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, and Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council, to plot the administration’s strategy. Other officials have participated in the Oval Office meetings because the White House continues to view them as budget negotiations, the official added.

The Treasury secretary also cut short a recent trip to Japan for a meeting of the Group of 7 finance ministers so she could return to Washington to deal with the debt limit.

Despite Ms. Yellen’s efforts to steer clear of the politics surrounding the debt limit, Republicans have been expressing doubts about her credibility.

Members of the House Freedom Caucus wrote a letter to Speaker Kevin McCarthy recently urging Republican leaders to demand that Ms. Yellen “furnish a complete justification” of her earlier projection that the U.S. could run out of cash as soon as June 1. In the letter, they accused her of “manipulative timing” and suggested that her forecasts should not be trusted because she was wrong about how hot inflation would get.

The letter that Ms. Yellen sent on Friday provided a specific deadline — June 5 — and listed the upcoming payments that the federal government is required to make and explained why the Treasury Department would be unable to cover its debts beyond that date.

Representative Patrick T. McHenry, a North Carolina Republican helping to lead the negotiations, said on Friday that there have been doubts about the X-date because it has been offered as a range. That, he said, is not what Americans experience when they do not have money to pay their mortgage bills on the day that they are due.

“There was some skepticism of a date range — that you can pick whatever you want,” he said. “That is not how this works.”

Republicans have also been targeting some of Ms. Yellen’s most prized policy priorities in the negotiations, such as rolling back some of the $80 billion that the Internal Revenue Service received as part of last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The White House appears prepared to return $10 billion of those funds, which are intended to bolster the agency’s ability to catch tax cheats, in exchange for preserving other programs.

In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press this week, Ms. Yellen lamented that Republicans were targeting the money.

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