The Magazine

Give States a Way to Go Bankrupt

It’s the best option for avoiding a massive federal bailout.

Nov 29, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 11 • By DAVID SKEEL
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Anyone who proposed even a decade ago that a state should be permitted to file for bankruptcy would have been dismissed as crazy. But times have changed. As Arnold Schwarze-negger’s plea for $7 billion of federal assistance for California earlier this year made clear, the states are the next frontier in “too big to fail.” In the topsy-turvy world we now inhabit, letting states file for bankruptcy to shed some of their obligations could save American taxpayers a great deal of money.

Give States a Way to Go Bankrupt

The financial mess that spendthrift states have gotten themselves into is well known. California—recently dubbed the “Lindsay Lohan of states” in the Wall Street Journal—has a deficit that could reach $25.4 billion next year, and Illinois’s deficit for the 2011 fiscal year may be in the neighborhood of $15 billion. There is little evidence that either state has a recipe for bringing down its runaway expenses, a large portion of which are wages and benefits owed to public employees. This means we can expect a major push for federal funds to prop up insolvent state governments in 2011, unless some miraculous alternative emerges to save the day. This is where bankruptcy comes in.

When the possibility is mentioned of creating a new chapter for states in U.S. bankruptcy law (Chapter 8, perhaps, which isn’t currently taken), most people have two reactions. First, that bankruptcy might be a great solution for exploding state debt; and second, that it can’t possibly be constitutional for Congress to enact such a law. Surprisingly enough, this reaction is exactly backwards. The constitutionality of bankruptcy-for-states is beyond serious dispute. The real question is whether the benefits would be large enough to justify congressional action. The short answer is yes. Although bankruptcy would be an imperfect solution to out-of-control state deficits, it’s the best option we have, at least if we want to have any chance of avoiding massive federal bailouts of state governments.

Start with the issue of constitutionality. The main objection to bankruptcy for states is that it would interfere with state sovereignty—the Constitution’s protections against federal meddling in state affairs. The best known such barrier is the Tenth Amendment, but the structure of the Constitution as a whole is designed to give the states a great deal of independence. This concern is easily addressed. So long as a state can’t be thrown into bankruptcy against its will, and bankruptcy doesn’t usurp state lawmaking powers, bankruptcy-for-states can easily be squared with the Constitution. But the solution also creates a second concern. If the bankruptcy framework treads gingerly on state prerogatives, as it must to be constitutional, it may be exceedingly difficult for a bankruptcy court to impose the aggressive measures a state needs to get its fiscal house in order.

Neither of these considerations—state sovereignty or the limited force of a bankruptcy framework that gives wide berth to governmental decision-makers—is hypothetical. We now have more than 70 years of experience with a special chapter of the bankruptcy code—now called Chapter 9—which permits cities and other municipal entities to file for bankruptcy. For decades, this chapter did not get a great deal of use. But since the successful 1994 filing for bankruptcy by Orange County, California, after the county’s bets on derivatives contracts went bad, municipal bankruptcy has become increasingly common. Vallejo, California, is currently in bankruptcy, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is mulling it over. The experience of these municipal bankruptcies shows how bankruptcy-for-states might work, what its limitations are, and why we need it now.

Municipal bankruptcy dates back to the last epic financial crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s. According to testimony in a 1934 congressional hearing, 2,019 cities and other governmental entities had defaulted on their debt at that time. Back then, the leading advocates of a bankruptcy option for local government were progressives, especially those whose cities were overwhelmed by debt. In 1933, Detroit mayor and future Supreme Court justice Frank Murphy assured Congress that bankruptcy would be “an orderly and legal way” to assist “the people of these great urban centers that are now simply being crushed out of existence by taxes and by debts.” The New Deal Congress obliged by enacting the first municipal bankruptcy law shortly thereafter.

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