USA TODAY, JOSH MEYER
A former spy now serving in Congress says the looming U.S. government shutdown is a national security threat that China and Russia will inevitably exploit.
Her proposed solution? Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., says the best way to stop the political brinksmanship and avert a default is to threaten lawmakers where it hurts them the most: having their paychecks docked.
“If Congress can’t fulfill basic obligations tied to the strength and security of our country, lawmakers should not be rewarded with our salaries until we do our jobs,” Spanberger said. “Working Americans get it – if you don’t do your job, you don’t get paid.”
The U.S. government will begin defaulting on payment obligations starting on June 1 if Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling.
For every day the U.S. government is in default of its financial obligations, the 535 elected members of Congress should work for their constituents without pay – until they get the government up and running again, Spanberger and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, proposed in May 18 legislation.
The two said in a statement that the bipartisan bill would block all members of Congress from getting paychecks during any default or government shutdown, which tentatively would happen if lawmakers and the Biden White House can’t come up with a compromise soon.
It would accomplish that by requiring congressional payroll administrators to withhold lawmakers’ paychecks on any day the public debt limit is reached or a lapse in federal government funding begins, Spanberger told USA TODAY in an interview Tuesday.
“Our bipartisan legislation is a no-brainer – lawmakers should not be paid if we irresponsibly default on our nation’s debt,” Fitzpatrick said in the statement announcing the legislation.
In compliance with the Constitution’s 27th Amendment, the Chief Administrative Office in the House, or CAO, would release withheld payments at the end of the 118th Congress, Spanberger said. She has already sent a letter to the CAO asking it to begin making preparations for blocking lawmakers from getting their paychecks until the debt ceiling is lifted.
Here’s a full text of their bill.
Why Spanberger is so worried about security
Spanberger was a former U.S. postal inspector and, later, a CIA case officer who worked counterterrorism and nonproliferation cases in an undercover capacity before being elected to Congress in 2018. Soon after being sworn in, the government was shuttered in what became the longest debt shutdown in early 2019.
She acknowledged that the new legislation isn’t getting a ton of support from her congressional colleagues. Some have complained to her, rather bitterly, she said, that they are working day and night to avert a default.
Her response to them? “If losing your salary might be the thing that helps you actually do your job then I’m OK with that threat,” Spanberger said. “A basic, bare-bones function of the job we were sent to Congress to do is to govern the country. And that includes not crushing the U.S. and global economy in deciding that we just want to summarily not pay our bills.”
Spanberger said her office is being flooded with calls and letters from worried constituents, including many federal employees who work in nearby military, intelligence, or law enforcement agencies that would be shut down if the government defaults. Her district also is home to a major Marine Corps base and FBI training facility in Quantico, Virginia.
But Spanberger said all Americans − and the government itself − are more vulnerable to a variety of threats of the government defaults on its debt.
“The national security threat is so profound on so many levels,” she said. “We are supposed to be a global leader in all things. If we can’t do the bare basics of protecting our economy, that just opens us up to so many vulnerabilities.”
Myriad security repercussions
Those vulnerabilities include:
◾ A U.S. debt default would undermine U.S. covert influence efforts to push back expansionist efforts around the world by adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela, Spanberger said. “Any nation that’s an adversary or even a semi-adversary or frenemy will be able to say, ‘Oh, my God, look at the United States. How can they be trusted? Why would you want to align yourselves with them?’ ”
◾ On a geopolitical level, some countries with whom the U.S. is trying to shore up diplomatic and military ties might opt to pivot towards Russia or China or be less inclined to support allied efforts in Ukraine or other conflict zones. “If we can’t do right by our own economy,” she said people will ask, “how are we going to do right by them?”
◾ A default would cause interest rates to skyrocket, undermining U.S. purchasing power and its ability to borrow money. That would have ripple effects on security efforts around the world, she said, including keeping the massive U.S. military apparatus, and government security contractors, running smoothly.
◾ Because China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, Beijing could exploit a U.S. default by calling in its debt and forcing Washington to put it ahead of all other creditors – and to pay what it owes back at highly inflated rates.
Others are worried too − including the White House
The White House has said repeatedly that a debt default would harm national security. Even the negotiations over it have impacted security by forcing President Joe Biden to cut short a recent overseas trip, canceling a stop in Australia to discuss military cooperation issues as the dispute over the debt ceiling intensified.
Two weeks ago, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the inability to reach a compromise “would be a gift to China, to Russia, and to other competitors,” who would “look to take advantage of the opportunity if we were to default.”
Jean-Pierre said a possible default would create global uncertainty about the value of the U.S. dollar and U.S. institutions, undermining Washington on the world stage. And she noted that National Intelligence Director Avril Haines told Congress had told Congress that China and Russia would pounce on a default in an attempt to demonstrate the chaos in the United States.
On May 5, Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that such efforts by hostile nations would be “almost a certainty.”
“Both Russia and China would look to perceive − sort of narrate through information operations − such an event as demonstrating the chaos within the United States, that we’re not capable of functioning as a democracy,” Haines said in response to a debt question from Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I.
And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned at the recent Group of Seven meetings in Japan that a U.S. default “would spark a global downturn that would set us back much further. It would also risk undermining U.S. global economic leadership and raise questions about our ability to defend our national security interests.”
A week after Haines’ testimony, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley issued a similar warning to the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, about the direct effect a default would have on the U.S. military.
“China right now describes us in their open speeches, etc, as a declining power,” Milley testified. “Defaulting on the debt will only reinforce that thought, and embolden China and increase risk to the United States.”
At that hearing, Reed said he thought a default would “give China an opportunity to exploit this dramatically.”
“Do you have any concept of the strategic competition with China if we default?” Reed, the Armed Services Committee chairman, asked Austin.
“There is substantial risk to our reputation, senator,” Austin replied. He said the Pentagon is “viewed as a source of stability globally, and we always pay our debts. And there’s just a number of things that we’re working with allies and partners on that would come into question as to whether or not we’ll be able to execute programs.”
“But most important, this will affect the livelihood of our troops and our civilians, and we won’t be able to pay people like we should. And I think that’s something that China and everybody else can exploit.”