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Since 1995, Democrats and Republicans have been in constant disagreement over the debt ceiling, with Democrats wanting to raise it and Republicans resisting their efforts. During this time, Democrats have had control of Congress multiple times, and had the opportunity to get rid of the debt ceiling altogether.

Why didn't they do this? Or perhaps they've tried to pass legislation on the subject and it got voted down?

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    politics.stackexchange.com/a/38017 This might be the answer.
    – Allure
    Jan 23, 2023 at 10:45
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    Unless this can be done by reconciliation, the D's would need a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
    – Barmar
    Jan 23, 2023 at 15:40
  • @Barmar they had that during the first two years of Obama’s presidency Jan 24, 2023 at 21:39
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    It's not quite true that Republicans have resisted raising the debt ceiling the whole time. Their fervour wavers depending on who's in the White House.
    – ajd138
    Jan 24, 2023 at 23:27

3 Answers 3

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Because they had 50 senators, not 52.

Senators Manchin and Sinema opposed large parts of the Democrats’ agenda, despite being members of the party (at the time, in the case of Sinema). That starkly limited how much Democrats could get done on any topic, including the debt ceiling. They did vote to allow a 2021 increase to the debt ceiling without the filibuster, but that was a one-time, “bipartisan” (50 Democratic and independent senators + 10 Republican senators) deal. Manchin has repeatedly stated he would not have voted for it if it weren’t a one-time thing, nor if it were insufficiently bipartisan. (Sinema, for the most part, has avoided staking any particular public position on much of anything.)

It was well known that Republicans were raring to play chicken with the debt ceiling with their new control of the House; there was 0 Republican support for eliminating the debt ceiling at the end of 2022 or beginning of 2023. That meant any addressing of the debt ceiling would not be “bipartisan” enough for Manchin, and that meant the Democrats wouldn’t have his vote (and probably wouldn’t have Sinema’s).

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    This is certainly accurate for the most recent time Democrats had full control, but doesn't address why they didn't do it in the first two years of Obama's term (the only other time they've had complete control since 1995).
    – Bobson
    Jan 23, 2023 at 15:53
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    @Bobson: In 2009, the debt ceiling was a weird technicality that hadn't been politically relevant since the shutdown of 1995 (and even then, the real problem was the budget, not the debt ceiling). It didn't get to its modern, politicized state until 2011.
    – Kevin
    Jan 23, 2023 at 16:58
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    @JoeW, three as of December. That said King and even (surprisingly?) Sinema have voted extremely in line with Democrats on record. And even Sanders is clearly in the Democrat side of the graph. So that's more terminology than practicality in terms of voting. Jan 24, 2023 at 5:28
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    @JeopardyTempest Part of that is, when you have only exactly as many votes as you need, a lot of things that people would vote against, don’t come up for vote.
    – KRyan
    Jan 24, 2023 at 6:26
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    @hszmv - It also should be pointed out that all bills dealing with money must originate in the House, ... is not entirely correct. Article I, Section 7, Clause 1: "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills." The Senate can and does propose spending in some of its bills, for example, S.2938
    – Rick Smith
    Jan 24, 2023 at 15:50
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Q: Why didn't Democrats get rid of the debt ceiling while they were in power?

In the latest round (2022), some House Democrats floated the idea, but it didn't get much traction. More to the point, President Biden, when asked, "about proposals to eliminate the debt ceiling" —

"You mean, just say we don't have a debt limit?" Biden said. "No. That would be irresponsible."

There appears to be no broad support and some resistance to taking such an action.

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  • Kind of hypocritical of Biden to say this, but accepting the answer as an official answer to my question. Jan 24, 2023 at 23:28
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    @JonathanReez - During the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis then-VP Biden was one of the negotiators for the Democrats. He has been in elected US office since 1973 (excepting the four years of Trump). He's been there, done that, for every debt-ceiling crisis for the past 50 years, including previous calls for getting rid of the debt limit.
    – Rick Smith
    Jan 25, 2023 at 0:03
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    What I meant was - Biden is essentially saying that having no debt limit is reckless, but naturally having a debt limit just high enough to support spending allocated by a Democratic Congress is always OK. Jan 25, 2023 at 0:05
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One more aspect to this: there is NOT a direct link between authority to spend and authority to borrow.

Consider: I purchase a $100,000 home.

  1. At the time of purchase, I can get a loan for the entire amount at 1% interest.
  2. Two years later, interest rates are up. I need to refinance... and now due to the cost of money, I can't actually afford to borrow the whole amount.
  3. Over time, if interest rates rise, the cost of interest for paying back that loan may be much higher than the original cost of what I purchased.

Ultimately, it IS irresponsible to say we can borrow any amount we want to cover what we've authorized as expenses.

Go look at the current US Treasury big picture, at US Debt Clock dot Org. The "Unfunded liability" is literally...

  • the Present Value of
  • all legally authorized future expenditures
  • for which there is no known source of income

Right now, the guaranteed future benefits authorized by congress are so large, that to pay them off over time, every person in the USA needs a bank account, TODAY, with over $500,000 -- extra, ready to give to the US government. [UPDATE: I didn't say we SHOULD give it. But you need that much already saved. Because the growth of those savings would be needed to pay for it. Your current income pays for other stuff!]

It's so big, it almost exceeds the entire value of all investment, property, etc in the USA. Totally irresponsible. [UPDATE in April 2023: now it DOES exceed! And that's just Federal.]

UPDATE: Another aspect to consider: apart from government, the rest of the economy shrinks and grows over time. When times get tough, people reduce spending, when times are good, we save. (Look it up, it's true ;) ).

We talk as if borrowing is an economic good that's easily reversible by paying it off. YES for normal people... but is that true for governments?

QUESTION: Do you have ANY idea how long it's been since the federal government (apart from one-time big "push" expenses) shrank its per-capita spending or shrank its debt? ANSWER: 1957! (1965, taking inflation into account.)

Ever since I was born, we just spend more, no matter what.

(UPDATE: The Obama admin led the way to a guaranteed future meltdown, BTW. Look at the August 2016 CBO budget estimates for the future. Rapidly increasing deficits, going well beyond a trillion a year. In fact, growing so much they switched from dollars to GDP percent. And it just grows forever even as a fraction of GDP.)

More debt makes zero sense. Yet it's now baked into the budget.

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    I agree that the government is wasting too much money but we’re actually paying out less money in interest right now than we did prior to 2002, when measured as a percentage of GDP: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/2211/… Jan 23, 2023 at 21:11
  • Why would you pay "TODAY" for a "future" benefit? It's more efficient for that money to remain circulating as long as possible up until it actually needs spending. Just because there isn't currently a source doesn't mean that there aren't a number of known options that Congress could authorize. At the individual level you're basically saying people should pay now the, i.e. 2 million that they will need to retire i.e. 50 years from now because it's expensive. Unfunded future liability isn't current debt.
    – ttbek
    Jan 24, 2023 at 11:50
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    The government is not a person. A national economy does not work the same way as your personal budget savings. Jan 26, 2023 at 7:30
  • @ttbek, you don't understand. "Present Value" means that's how much money is needed today, to cover a future guaranteed payment. Of course laws can be changed. But the whole point of looking at PV is to recognize that even if we invested $500k each today, to generate a bunch of future cash to cover those guaranteed payments... that's NOT ENOUGH. $500k is the PRESENT value of the future stuff. And this is just the UNfunded liabilities. In other words, it already accounts for ALL known / anticipated future money sources (like your ongoing social security tax pmts).
    – MrPete
    Feb 22, 2023 at 15:36
  • @JonathanReez, so what? That's just the interest payments. And, BTW, interest rates were held artificially low for a number of years "to help the economy", which makes the cost of borrowing so much appear to be cheap. ;)
    – MrPete
    Feb 22, 2023 at 15:44

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