At the beginning of every workday, from his second-floor office in the U.S. Treasury Department, Dave Lebryk starts his morning looking at a color-coded dashboard tracking the most critical operations of the largest payment system in the world.
More than $6 trillion flows out of the Treasury every year in payments, salaries and purchase orders, and more than $5 trillion flows in, mostly through tax collections and fees. Lebryk’s job is to make sure that these billions of transactions go smoothly. The dashboard, chock-full of information from the thousands of employees under his purview, helps him keep track of it all, with green showing where functions are normal, yellow for where issues are emerging and red for problems requiring his immediate attention.
His attention is in particularly high demand these days. The Treasury’s fiscal assistant secretary since 2014, Lebryk is the government staffer perhaps most responsible for figuring out how the United States should handle the alarming prospect of running out of money, making him a pivotal, if lesser-known, player in the debt ceiling standoff consuming Washington.
Lebryk, for instance, provides the financial estimates to Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, which are then sent to Congress as warnings of the “X date” deadline by which the nation will have exhausted its funds. He plays a crucial role in coordinating and determining how much money the Treasury needs to borrow to finance the government. His team also prepares and manages the “extraordinary measures” that the Treasury has been deploying since January to delay a default for as long as possible.
“He runs the nation’s checkbook. He is not quite the CFO of the country, but he is pretty close,” said Mark Mazur, who served as assistant secretary for tax policy at the Treasury earlier in the Biden administration. “His job is basically trying to keep the system running as long as possible, to push off the day of reckoning as long as possible.”
In calmer times, Lebryk meets once a quarter or once a month to tell Yellen exactly how much money the United States has on hand. But with the federal government running out of money, over the last several months Lebryk and his team have been briefing Yellen every day, as the former Federal Reserve chair responds with detailed questions about their projections. “We take this responsibility enormously seriously,” Lebryk said in a recent interview.
His analyses could hold even more weight in the days to come and be subject to even more intense scrutiny. Congress sets the maximum amount the Treasury can legally borrow, which is now $31.4 trillion. Because the nation routinely spends more than it collects in revenue, the debt ceiling must be raised to prevent a government default, which many economists predict could cause a global financial crisis. [Continue reading…]