Most recently, the U.S. defaulted on Treasury bill payments in 1979 shortly after Congress raised the debt ceiling. According to the Congressional Research Service analysis: “In late April and early May 1979, about 4,000 Treasury checks for interest payments and for the redemption of maturing securities held by individual investors worth an estimated $122 million were not sent on time. Foregone interest due to the delays was estimated at $125,000.” The default was due to technical problems and was cured within a short period of time.
The claim that the United States has never defaulted, despite its frequent repetition, is not strictly true. Officials could make more modest and qualified claims such as “aside from a relatively minor operational snafu, the United States has not defaulted in the post-World War II era.” Such a claim lacks the power of a more sweeping generalization, but at least it’s accurate. If President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen want to seem credible, they should avoid making historic statements that are easily refuted by a small amount of Googling. If they cannot be believed about the basic reality of the federal government’s credit history, how can we believe what they say about current policy choices?
Author(s): MARC JOFFE AND JEFFREY ROGERS HUMMEL
Publication Date: 19 Nov 2021
Publication Site: Reason