Skip to main content

Debt ceiling votes: from routine to radioactive

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
Click to play
Obama ready to compromise on debt deal
  • The debt ceiling has become a "symbol of runaway federal government spending," a professor says
  • The two parties are more divided than they have been in more than 100 years, another argues
  • Dozens of earlier debt increases never caused much controversy
  • Analysts warn of potentially devastating economic consequences if the limit isn't increased

Washington (CNN) -- You've heard the warnings by now.

If the federal government doesn't raise its debt ceiling by August 2, we're playing a nasty game of economic roulette. Interest rates may skyrocket. The dollar might crash. Your 401(k) could tank as markets tremble, the full faith and credit of the U.S. government teeters, and investors flee for safer havens.

So if all that's possible, why can't Congress and the White House just agree on an increase and get it passed?

The answer: severe economic anxiety and heightened partisanship have virtually paralyzed Washington.

It wasn't always this way. Since March of 1962, Congress has enacted 74 measures altering the federal debt limit, according to analysts from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. The ceiling was increased under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, with much less angst and outrage than we're seeing today.

Senators and representatives passed the first debt ceiling law during World War I to end the laborious process of having to authorize specific loans for every new federal program -- military and otherwise.

The creation of the ceiling gave the Treasury a "greater ability to respond to changing conditions and (provide) more flexibility in financial management," a recent CRS report noted.

Congress was able to impose overall constraints -- a nod to fiscal responsibility -- while maintaining control of the power of the purse, a constitutional prerogative.

In 1919 -- the year after the Great War ended -- the debt ceiling was $43 billion. But as the country grew and Washington's role expanded, the ceiling was raised. In 1945, following Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and World War II, the ceiling hit $300 billion.

The ensuing demands of the Cold War and steady expansion of federal responsibilities inevitably pushed the ceiling higher. Sometimes politicians were unhappy about supporting a hike, but ultimately they acknowledged the necessity.

"This country now possesses the strongest credit in the world," Ronald Reagan wrote in 1983 in a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tennessee. "The full consequences of a default -- or even the serious prospect of a default -- by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate."

Most of the debt ceiling changes were relatively small percentage-wise, at least in contrast to the changes enacted during the Great Depression and the Second World War. But in sheer dollar terms, more recent increases have been eye-popping.

During George W. Bush's first term -- in May 2003 -- the limit was increased by $984 billion, according to CRS. In February 2010, with the economy struggling and Barack Obama's stimulus package in full swing, the limit jumped another $1.9 trillion.

Nearly one and a half years later, Washington has just about hit its current $14.3 trillion borrowing limit. Meanwhile, debt as a percentage of the overall economy is reaching levels not seen since the end of World War II.

One of the problems people appear to have with all of this new deficit spending is that it isn't helping them feel any better about the country's economic prospects. Unemployment remains high in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse; the average American is still extremely worried about the future. Roughly four out every five Americans called the economy poor in a June 3-7 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll.

If you don't believe all of that deficit spending is helping, why do more of it? A new McClatchy-Marist poll released Wednesday shows that 59% of U.S. adults want Washington to make the debt reduction the priority -- even at the expense of an economic recovery.

People "have little hope that the U.S. economy will rebound enough in the near term to help offset the federal deficit, much less pay down the national debt," Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political scientist, told CNN. "That kind of pessimism makes it tough to persuade Americans that borrowing more money is the answer."

In previous years, the debt "was a big concern, but did not loom as a threat to our overall economic health the way it does today," Schiller added. "So the debt ceiling has been transformed from a 'must-pass' bureaucratic mechanism to a widely discussed symbol of runaway federal government spending."

Schiller also blamed the Obama administration for failing to more clearly explain the consequences of a possible default on the debt.

People are asking "if AIG and Lehman Brothers can go under, and Citibank can take a bailout, and millions can walk away from their homes, why can't the U.S. government simply not pay its bills on time?"

"To the average voter, it sure seems as if everyone else defaults," she said. So "why not us?"

"The mantra coming from Washington to the American voter is do not spend more than you earn, but the federal government does it on a regular basis," Schiller added. "That is hard to reconcile for most people trying to stay afloat today."

As calls for greater fiscal restraint sweep the country, Capitol Hill is more sharply divided along party lines than at any other time in recent history, according to numerous political analysts. Consistent partisan voting is the new norm, and lawmakers see little political upside to backing a debt ceiling increase if they don't have to.

"The controversy over the debt limit is part of a broader trend of the last 30 years in which the two main parties are more divided on more issues than anytime since the late nineteenth century," noted Johns Hopkins University political scientist Adam Sheingate.

What does this mean? If your party doesn't hold the White House, don't bother voting for an increase. The other guys are responsible for running the government. Make them pay the price.

Indeed, Republican senators were forced to provide nearly all of the votes necessary to raise the ceiling when their party controlled both the White House and the Senate in 2003, 2004, and 2006. Democratic senators have provided nearly all of the votes to raise the limit over the past two years -- a time when they've controlled the White House and the Senate.

Members of the House have behaved in a similar manner.

Today, with Republicans in control of the House and near parity in the Senate, GOP leaders see an opportunity to extract major policy concessions from Obama in exchange for a debt ceiling hike. Top Republicans are pushing for trillions of dollars in spending cuts while nixing any talk of tax increases sought by their Democratic counterparts.

"The Republican leadership is betting that the White House will act responsibly and make spending concessions in order to secure needed votes in the House," Sheingate said. "It is in (Speaker John) Boehner's interest to give the impression that he lacks complete control over his caucus in order to raise the possibility that enough Republicans will act irresponsibly and force the U.S. to default."

Sheingate argued that "although the probability of such an outcome is low, the adverse effects are sufficiently great that the GOP can expect the White House to blink first."

He also stressed the importance of conservative tea party activists, who "made voting on the debt limit a litmus test for Republicans shortly after the 2010 midterm election."

Republicans who vote to raise the limit will risk a primary challenge next year, Sheingate noted.

"The Republicans -- if they hold firm -- are putting the Democrats under increasing pressure, not just now but in the foreseeable future, to constantly defend the size, scope, and cost of the federal government," Schiller said.

"Fighting over the debt ceiling is good politics -- risky but with a potentially big payoff for the Republicans."

And so Washington continues to bicker as the deadline draws near. The game of political chicken goes on.