We don’t need to wait until Aug. 2 to find out what effect a failure to agree on raising the debt ceiling will have — it’s already happening.

Uncertainty over what Congress and the president will do or not do is throwing cold water on an economic recovery that is already losing steam.

Even without a government default or a downgrade in the nation’s bond rating, serious uncertainty has been sown among consumers and business owners who might otherwise be ready to spend some money. That translates to a slowdown in economic activity, which is bad news for investors, people looking for work or anyone who is waiting for this economy to turn around.

The uncertainty can be felt in state government, where commitments have been made to pay for services with the expectation of federal support. Even with tax collections coming in ahead of projections, state officials here are feeling the chill that comes from waiting to see what Washington will do.

Maine finance commissioner Sawin Millett said “this is a game of Russian roulette that we don’t want to play.”

This should have been easy. The White House and Congress only needed to reassure the markets that the United States was good for the debt that it had already incurred. Instead of reassurance, what we got were complicated “grand bargains” and rancorous finger pointing when they couldn’t be delivered.


At the base of this problem is not economics — most economists agree that flirting with default is bad for the economy — but politics. Democrats and Republicans are acting as if they can salvage a win out of this mess, even if they fail to make an agreement. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner told a conservative talk show host that some members of his caucus believe that a default would create enough chaos to force congressional Democrats and President Obama to give up their opposition to a balanced budget amendment.

It might work, but would it be worth it? Even if it sent the economy back into recession and broke the hearts of millions of unemployed workers looking for a real recovery, while adding more job seekers to their ranks? That is too much to risk for a political win.

Even if there is a last-minute deal in which all sides swallow their pride and pass a compromise that no one will love, this episode won’t quickly be forgotten.

The protracted debt ceiling talks have already hurt the economy, and will continue to do so the longer they drag on.

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