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As the government shutdown continues, the nation gets closer and closer to the day—probably Oct. 17—when Washington hits the debt limit, and with it the specter of default. President Obama may be getting nervous about what will happen to his negotiating position as that day approaches.
He keeps asserting that the debt limit has never been used “to extort a president or a government party.” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is selling the same story, saying “until very recently, Congress typically raised the debt ceiling on a routine basis . . . the threat of default was not a bargaining chip in the negotiations.”
This is simply untrue. Consider the shenanigans of congressional Democrats in 1989 over Medicare’s catastrophic health coverage provision.
In this case, the problem was political infighting within the Democratic Party between the House and the Senate. “Weeks of political maneuvering brought the government to the brink of financial default,” the New York Times wrote on Nov. 8 of that year. The debt limit was raised just hours before all extraordinary measures to avoid default were exhausted. The final bill dropped any action on Medicare but included a measure to repeal 1986 tax rules barring discrimination in employer-paid health insurance plans.
The Obama administration’s campaign to make the debt limit appear non-negotiable might reflect concern that Republican congressional strategy might actually work. Six out of 10 Americans say “it is right to require spending cuts when the debt ceiling is raised, even if it risks default,” according to a Sept. 26 Bloomberg poll. (Only 28% say “the debt ceiling should be raised when necessary, with no conditions.”)
One thing is certain: The debt limit has been a powerful negotiating tool in the last several decades. It has enabled the passage of important additional legislation.
“The debt limit has been a powerful negotiating tool in the last several decades. It has enabled the passage of important additional legislation.” — Kevin Hassett, Abby McCloskey
According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress voted 53 times from 1978 to 2013 to change the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling has increased to about $16 trillion from $752 billion. Of these 53 votes, 29 occurred in a Congress run by Democrats, 17 in a split Congress, and seven in a Republican-controlled Congress.
While large increases that give the U.S. Treasury a healthy amount of borrowing space happen occasionally, small short-term increases are common. In 1990 alone, while Republican George H.W. Bush was in the White House, a Democratic-controlled Congress voted to increase the debt limit seven times.
Congressional Republicans who want legislative conditions in exchange for a debt-limit increase are following a strategy that has been pursued by both parties the majority of the time. Of the 53 increases in the debt limit, 26 were “clean”—that is, stand-alone, no strings-attached statutes. The remaining debt-limit increases were part of an omnibus package of other legislative bills or a continuing resolution. Other times, the limit was paired with reforms, only some of which were related to the budget.
In 1979, a Democratic Congress increased the debt limit but required Congress and the president to present balanced budgets for fiscal years 1981 and 1982. In 1980 the debt limit, again increased by a Democratic Congress, included repeal of an oil-import fee. In 1985, the debt limit that was raised by a divided Congress included a cigarette tax and a provision requiring Congress to pursue an alternative minimum corporate tax in the next year.
Most recently, a divided Congress that passed the 2011 debt-limit increase included the Budget Control Act which aimed to reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion over 10 years and included the automatic budget sequester that kicked in on Jan. 1.
As the finger pointing begins, it is important to keep this history in mind. All told, congressional Democrats have been responsible for 60% of the “dirty” increases when the debt limit was raised alongside other legislative items. Republicans were responsible for 15%. The remaining 25% occurred during divided Congresses.
Of the Democratic dirties, six occurred when Democrats also controlled the White House, and 10 occurred when a Republican controlled the White House. For Republicans, all four occurred while a Democrat held the presidency.
Debt-limit votes often have been contentious, but on the whole they serve an important function. First, they force painful votes by legislators who would prefer to offer supporters free lunches through unfunded spending programs. Without these votes, politicians of both parties would have a significantly easier time ignoring fiscal discipline.
Second, debt-limit votes have provided a regular vehicle for legislation. Divided governments have a difficult time passing anything. Since the consequences of government default are so severe, debt-limit legislation has always passed in the end, and it has often included important additional legislative accomplishments.
Third, the debt limit has provided significant leverage to the minority party and has been a check on the power of the presidency.
Republicans today are playing a role that has been played many times. While the debt-limit kabuki inevitably roils markets as deadlines approach, the alternative absence of fiscal discipline would make government insolvency more probable in the fullness of time.
Trying to separate Obamacare from the debt limit, President Obama has asserted that his health law has “nothing to do with the budget.” His argument is eagerly echoed by an at-best ignorant media. The Affordable Care Act was passed under “reconciliation”—a legislative process that is used only for budget measures and which limits congressional debate.
The notion that legislation passed as part of a budget might be reconsidered as part of subsequent budget legislation should be uncontroversial. Perhaps that is why the administration has staked so much on its misrepresentation of history.
Mr. Hassett is director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Ms. McCloskey is a program director.
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