Since the onset of World War II, Congress has voted more than once a year to increase the legal ceiling on the national debt, raising it from $49 billion to the current $14.3 trillion, mostly in the last 30 years.
On many occasions, the votes were sharply partisan, as each party in turn used the situation to criticize its rival’s alleged fiscal profligacy. Democrats opposed increases during Republican administrations; Republicans did so under Democrats.
Both parties bear some responsibility. After all, due to a variety of factors, the national debt rose 85 percent during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency and an additional 35 percent during President Barack Obama’s first two years.
Generally, it was politically safe to vote against increasing the debt ceiling, since everyone knew Congress eventually would act to avert any threat to the nation’s financial stability. Congress never failed to raise the ceiling, though in 2008 the House initially rejected an economic bailout bill that included a $700 billion increase.
Since 2006, however, lawmakers have wrapped debt ceiling increases into other “must” legislation, fearful a “stand-alone” bill might lose.
As yet another such vote approaches, this year’s bitter partisan fighting over the deficit and several other factors threaten to produce a rejection both party leaderships acknowledge would be disastrous.
They include these:
• Republican leaders see the vote as one of their best ways to force Obama to accept more of their prescriptions for curbing the deficit. While they tout the $38 billion cut by the recent agreement on this year’s budget, both sides recognize those reductions were relatively modest.
• Many freshman House Republicans were elected after pledging to oppose the increase, forcing the GOP leadership to rely on Democrats who are not in much of a compromising mood.
• Recent polls show the country strongly opposes raising the debt ceiling, presumably in the mistaken belief that would somehow curb the deficit.
• Senate Democrats, and to some extent Obama, are reluctant to help Republicans achieve their goals of further slashing domestic programs and revamping Medicare.
When Obama argues against rejecting the increase, he faces one highly embarrassing problem: his own 2006 vote against raising the debt ceiling and his contention that the need to do so “is a sign of leadership failure.”
Indeed, Obama voted only once as a senator to raise the debt ceiling, missing two other votes.
As the country’s debt nears the legal limit, which officials expect to happen in mid-May, it’s unclear how much impact repeated warnings against allowing that to happen will have on members of Congress.
For one thing, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has indicated the government probably can use various legal means to avoid any crisis until about July 8, giving lawmakers an excuse to delay a showdown until late June.
They showed during the recent battle over the 2011 budget that they were willing to squabble until within hours of the deadline, even if failure to agree might have forced the government to shut some services.
Still, there is general agreement this situation is far more dangerous than that one, which might have mainly kept some federal workers home and shut museums and national parks.
Beyond preventing the government from borrowing to pay its bills, even the threat of a shutdown could have a significant psychological impact, as Standard & Poor’s recently warned. That was echoed by former Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, a Democrat, and Paul O’Neill, a Republican.
“An impasse or serious threats with respect to a default” can do “great damage to confidence in our political system, and potentially to our markets,” Rubin said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” Asked if he agreed, O’Neill replied, “Absolutely.”
But a day later, House Speaker John Boehner showed little had changed, warning he might not even allow a House vote on the debt ceiling unless Obama agreed to major entitlement cuts. “If the president doesn’t get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there’s a chance it (the debt limit vote) could not happen,” he told Politico.com. “But that’s not my goal.”
One would hope not.