Debt ceiling default would imperil troop pay and hurt military’s reputation, DOD leaders tell Congress
Stars and Stripes May 11, 2023
WASHINGTON — The military’s top leaders said Thursday that a default on the nation’s debt would imperil troop pay and hurt the U.S. military’s reputation worldwide, issuing a warning to Congress amid a dispute over the government’s debt limit.
If the U.S. runs out of money to pay its bills, which could be as soon as June 1, the Defense Department would lose the ability to pay service members with any degree of predictability, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in testimony to a subpanel of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“This will affect the livelihood of our troops and our civilians,” Austin said. “We won’t be able to pay people like we should and I think that’s something that China and everybody else can exploit.”
Lawmakers and the White House remain locked in a standoff over the debt ceiling after a meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday failed to produce an agreement. House Republicans are refusing to raise the ceiling and avoid a default without significant cuts to spending.
The fight has already delayed congressional work on the National Defense Authorization Act, must-pass legislation that sets annual priorities for the Pentagon, and threatens to further upend the military.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that a default would allow China, the U.S. military’s top strategic competitor, to double down on its claims that the U.S. is a declining power.
“Defaulting on the debt will only reinforce that thought and embolden China and increase risk to the United States,” he said.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he was particularly concerned by China’s ability to use the default for a disinformation campaign targeting U.S. citizens and then emerge as the “stable adult in the room” on the world stage.
“This could be one of the greatest strategic errors vis-à-vis China in history,” said Reed, an Army veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Austin said he agreed with that assessment and noted the risk to the reputation of the U.S. was substantial.
“We are viewed as being 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,” Austin said without elaborating.
Biden is scheduled to again meet with congressional leaders on Friday to discuss ways to raise the $31.4 trillion borrowing cap. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is proposing a deal that would lift the cap in exchange for reducing overall spending to fiscal 2022 levels while the White House and Democrats want a clean extension of the debt ceiling without stipulations.
Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, lashed out against the Republican plan on Wednesday for forcing a rescheduling of debate on the NDAA this week and said it was the first indication of how the ongoing standoff will affect the military.
“The Republican leadership’s decision to take the debt ceiling increase hostage, to basically play chicken with the full faith and credit of our country, also cannot do anything but jeopardize our national security,” the Washington state congressman said.