How the Debt Ceiling Came to Be a Political Cudgel

The current fight over raising the debt limit is proving to be another lesson in American political dysfunction.

By Clay Risen

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Over the weekend, Germany conducted a hard and close-fought election with calm, ease and not a peep about voter fraud or fake news — a sharp contrast, several observers noted, to the mess that is contemporary American electoral politics. And now we’re getting another lesson in American political dysfunction: the fight over whether and how to raise the debt ceiling.

Coming amid the endgame maneuvering around President Biden’s infrastructure bill, his $3.5 trillion reconciliation package and a looming deadline to fund the government, this debate is absurdist theater at its worst. The debt ceiling is a century-old, artificial limit placed on how much the United States can borrow to fund its existing obligations, a limit that Congress could do away with, but remains in place because it is always caught up in short-term political calculations.

Raising the limit used to be a bipartisan nonevent. But, like everything else in Washington over the last 15 years, it has been sucked into the tornado of no-holds-barred politics. In 2006, the Democrats, including then-Senator Joe Biden, refused to support a debt-limit increase by the George W. Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress, as a protest over the Iraq war and tax cuts. In 2011 and again two years later, the Republicans tried to use their potential support as a bargaining chip, to force the Democrats and Barack Obama to concede on spending cuts.

Each time, columnists and Treasury officials warned about the consequences of default, should the limit not be raised. And each time, in the end, Republicans and Democrats reached a deal, and the crisis was averted.

Things feel different this time, though — not because we’re at any more risk of default, but because of what the details of the fight show about the danger of government dysfunction.

As my colleague Jim Tankersley has noted, this time there’s no demand from the Republicans, no attempt to win concessions from the Democrats. They simply refuse to engage with the issue. And the Democrats, who see the mounting debt as at least partly the result of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, but who could also act unilaterally to raise the limit, are holding out, in hope of forcing the Republicans to vote for the debt increase and therefore own a piece of it.

The whole situation has a darkly comic, Strangelovian aura about it, if “Dr. Strangelove” were about fiscal policy instead of nuclear Armageddon. Consider a comment by Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, at a news conference last week.

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