What full faith and credit? That’s the question many are asking as Congress is coming under increasing pressure to raise the debt ceiling yet again to avoid a possible default on the federal government’s credit obligations.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent a letter to Congress last week warning in nearly apocalyptic tones of what a default might look like.

“Never in our history has Congress failed to increase the debt limit when necessary,” he wrote. “Failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States. Default would effectively impose a significant and long-lasting tax on all Americans and all American businesses and could lead to the loss of millions of American jobs. Even a short-term or limited default would have catastrophic economic consequences that would last for decades. Failure to increase the limit would be deeply irresponsible.”

Geithner asked Congress to increase the debt limit early this year before “the threat of default becomes imminent.” He pointed out that while Congress passed legislation last February to increase the debt limit to $14.29 trillion, the outstanding debt that is subject to the limit currently stands at $13.95 trillion, leaving just $335 billion of “headroom” beneath the current limit.

White House economic advisor Austan Goolsbee has issued similar Cassandra-like warnings. “This is not a game,” he said earlier this month on ABC’s “This Week.” “The debt ceiling … is not something to toy with. If we hit the debt ceiling, that’s … essentially defaulting on our obligations, which is totally unprecedented in American history. The impact on our economy would be catastrophic. I mean, that would be a worse financial crisis than anything we saw in 2008.” He accused the Republicans of “playing chicken” with the economy.

However, the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, is not yet ready to increase the debt ceiling. “The American people will not stand for such an increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful action by the President and Congress to cut spending and end the job-killing spending binge in Washington,” he said in a statement. “While America cannot default on its debt, we also cannot continue to borrow recklessly, dig ourselves deeper into this hole, and mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren. Spending cuts — and reforming a broken budget process — are top priorities for the American people and for the new majority in the House this year, and it is essential that the President and Democrats in Congress work with us in that effort.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., said, “Americans want lawmakers to cut Washington spending, tackle the debt, rein in government, and to help create the right conditions for private sector job growth.”

In the aftermath of the deeply disturbing shootings in Tucson over the weekend, lawmakers have temporarily set aside their differences, along with Republican pledges to repeal the health care reform bill, but we can expect to see Congress back at loggerheads in about a week or so. Once the health care repeal brouhaha settles down, the next battle is likely to be over raising the debt limit.

Now, for many years, the phrase, “backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government,” has inspired smirks aplenty. Countries around the world, not to mention investors, have a pretty good idea of how much of a debtor nation the U.S. is in terms of its borrowing. It’s also been an awful long time since the gold standard was in place.

Of course, no one wants the U.S. to really default on its obligations to retirees and investors, and it’s not very likely that Congress will allow that to happen. The interest on the national debt would only grow, meaning that an ever larger chunk of tax revenues would go toward just paying off that interest and make it even harder for Congress and the administration to ever come close to balancing the budget. Then too, the example of other countries that have run into debt problems, like Greece and Spain, and the protests that have erupted over government attempts to impose austerity measures, are not very encouraging.

While it’s likely that many Republicans in Congress will vote against raising the debt limit, and perhaps some Democrats too, like then Senator Obama back in 2006, in the end Congress will probably come to some agreement to temporarily ratchet up the debt ceiling a tad higher before any default actually occurs. That way, lawmakers can fight later in the year over how they’re going to reduce the deficit and claim credit for how much they are cutting it over the long term, when it’s actually just a matter of lowering the ceiling back down an inch or two. A little breathing room always helps.

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