Then there is Loan limit, the legal limit on how much debt the government is allowed to collect. There is, as you may have heard, no limit to how much the government can spend. Congress can approve $85 quadrillion in spending and the debt ceiling has nothing to do with it — at least, that is, until it’s time to pay those bills. When the government doesn’t have the money that Congress says it has to pay, it issues debt to that extent.
So now we are once again at a point where the government has crossed the line. This did not happen often. Congress will only vote to raise the ceiling when the debt approaches it. But it happens a lot these days, partly because debt levels are rising and partly because politicians have discovered that hemming and hawing to raise the ceiling is a way to get incentives or attention or both. There is a good way.
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By “politicians,” of course, I mean almost exclusively “Republican politicians when the president is a Democrat.” And if you’ve checked the news lately, you know that’s the current situation. And so we have House Republicans, led by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), protesting their opposition to raising the debt ceiling.
Democrats, naturally, are quick to point out that McCarthy and his caucus had no apparent concerns about the debt ceiling when Donald Trump was president, a period during which the debt ceiling was largely suspended. The government can only collect more debt, and what else. Then the limit came back and so did the advantage it offered.
Republicans who object to raising the debt ceiling often associate it with government spending. In other words, with a deficit. It’s funny, but it’s hard to deny that talking about the debt ceiling can effectively get them excited about spending. However, I began this article by distinguishing between key terms because they are easy to confuse, intentionally or not.
But that begs the question: Which party is most responsible for the debt (and therefore the debt ceiling) that is high?
There’s really no clear way to answer this question, given how government spending works. Nevertheless, it is instructive to look at how the debt has changed and which party was in power when it did so that we can at least guess at the answer.
Below, you can see the change in debt at the start of each Congress since 1993. The Treasury Department’s daily debt data only goes back to early 1993, so I included the last half of that year (during which a new Congress began). I’ve even included a bit of this year’s, just for a treat.
By itself this does not tell us much. So let’s now flood the zone with additional information: the debt ceiling at the beginning and end of each Congress, control of the House and Senate, and control of the White House. Below, another piece of data: the percentage change in debt during each Congress.
Now we are going somewhere. At the bottom, for example, you can see that the largest column—representing a nearly 32 percent increase in the debt, Democratic control of the House and Senate (blue background of the column) and a Democratic president (blue stripes ) occurred with . It was the Congress that began in 2009, the first of the Barack Obama administration and one in which the administration was trying to limit the negative effects of the recession that began 15 years earlier. The last Congress also saw a big increase in the debt, marking the third largest increase. It was the George W. Bush administration that was similarly trying to fix the economy, among other things.
The second largest column was during Donald Trump’s administration: The government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Crises are expensive.
(Oh, by the way: Note that the white line on the graph above, which shows the debt limit, used to sit just above the original debt. Now the two lines run parallel—except when the limit is lifted because it Just makes everything easier.)
That’s all well and good, but it’s still hard to analyze where debt responsibility lies (to the extent that you think accumulating debt is something one might feel guilty about). . If we divide the increase in debt by just the control of Congress and the presidency, we get something like this.
You can see that the largest constituency sits next to Congress where Democrats control the House, Republicans control the Senate and a Republican was in the White House. It was this Congress that ran from 2019 to 2021, affected by the pandemic. Mind you, from the beginning of this Congress to March 1, 2020, the debt had increased by $1.5 trillion, a larger increase than in any Congress prior to 2009. The biggest leap itself.
Of course, the total debt at the beginning of 2009 was very low. If we consider relative growth—the increase in debt compared to total debt—the picture changes. Congress saw a big jump from 2019 to 2021, but so did a recessionary Congress starting in 2009. And so does the 2007 to 2009 Congress, shown at upper right.
If we rank each Congress by House and Senate composition, overlay the presidency, and then consider both actual and relative growth in the debt, we get this table. It is ordered from the lowest average increase in debt to the highest — a Congress in which Democrats control the House and Republicans control the Senate and the White House.
Situations like the present—just the opposite—achieve the second lowest average relative increase. They have also achieved the fourth largest overall increase in debt.
Our answer is: Who owns the debt? Everyone, really. Not useful for political jokes, but important to know.
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