By Jack Lew
It might be hard to believe, but there is a dangerous debate underway in Congress right now over whether the United States, the world's strongest economy, should pay all of its bills.
This is not a debate about reducing future spending or cutting the deficit. This is about making sure the United States can meet its existing obligations to our citizens, businesses and investors - and the stakes could not be higher.
If the United States cannot pay its bills in full and on time, each and every American will be affected, including seniors who rely on Social Security, veterans who depend on disability payments, children in need of food assistance, and doctors and hospitals who treat Medicare patients, among others.
The stock market, including investments in retirement accounts, could tumble, and it could become more expensive for Americans to buy a car, own a home and open a small business.
We cannot put our nation in the position of not paying its bills because Congress has refused to raise the country's debt limit. It is important to note that increasing the debt limit does not give the government the ability to spend more money.
An increase in the debt limit simply allows us to pay our bills. Without a debt limit increase, our government will - in a matter of days - not have the resources it needs to make good on its commitments.
Only Congress has the power to lift the debt limit. That means only Congress can clear the way for our government to meet all of its financial obligations.
The United States has met all its financial obligations for more than 200 years. We are a nation that keeps our word. We are a nation that stands behind our full faith and credit.
Some claim that the United States does not need to meet every one of its commitments. They argue that the government could pay certain bills and let others go unpaid without consequences.
The United States cannot be put in a position of having to choose which commitments it should meet. How could we possibly decide among supporting our veterans, maintaining food assistance for children in need, or sending Medicare payments to hospitals?
President Obama has made clear that he stands ready to find a sensible solution to curb spending and bring down our deficits.
He has already worked with Congress to shrink our deficits by more than half by the end of this year. And he has put forward a budget plan that contains spending cuts favored by Republicans because he is committed to making compromises to strengthen our economic future.
He has also made clear, however, that we will not negotiate over whether the United States pays its bills for past commitments. It is a solemn responsibility with which Congress has been entrusted. Congress has met that responsibility consistently throughout our history.
It must do it again now.