Because the national debt is fast approaching its legal limit of $14.294 trillion, Congress is yet again facing the dilemma of raising the debt ceiling so the federal government can borrow more money or allowing the government to default on its obligations and possibly shut down.
Beginning in 1917, Congress established statutory limits on federal debt. Since 1939, these limits have been combined into one aggregate debt limit. The debt ceiling was "only" $49 billion in 1940. Surprisingly, it was actually lowered five times, in 1946, 1956, 1960, and twice in 1963, before growing to $1 trillion by September of 1981.
The Treasury Department anticipates the current debt ceiling will be reached between April 15 and May 31. Not raising the debt limit would have "catastrophic" consequences, says Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. "Congress has to do it. There's no alternative," he said to a House appropriations subcommittee.
House Republican Leader Eric Cantor insists that lawmakers will not consider raising the debt ceiling until April 15. Some Senate Republicans are threatening to filibuster any bill to increase the debt limit. House Republicans are currently overwhelming opposed to any additional hike in the debt limit, and most of them have expressed opposition to raising the debt limit under any circumstances.
Most congressional Democrats currently favor raising the limit. But some Democrats who are up for reelection next year, like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, have vowed to oppose any increase in the debt ceiling unless it is paired with a debt and deficit reduction package.
The Republicans appear to mean business. The last two times the debt ceiling was raised -- in December of 2009 (to $12.394 trillion) and February of 2010 (to the current $14.294 trillion) -- not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted in favor of doing so.
Such was not always the case.
When President George Bush took office in January of 2001, he inherited a debt limit of $5.95 trillion. On the day of Bush's first inauguration, the federal debt stood at $5.73 trillion. But then Bush and his Republican-controlled Congress went on a spending spree that would make LBJ proud. By the time of Bush's second inauguration, the national debt had increased by almost $2 trillion to $7.61 trillion. On the last day of Bush's second term, the national debt stood at $10.63 trillion. So, during the eight-year reign of George Bush, the national debt practically doubled. The federal budget exploded under Bush from $2 trillion in fiscal year 2002 (his first budget) to $3.1 trillion in fiscal year 2009 (his last budget). This last of Bush's budgets was especially significant; it was the first budget in U.S. history to have a deficit of over $1 trillion.
With a debt limit of "only" $5.95 trillion, how did all this happen? Simple. Bush and the Republicans raised the debt limit four times from 2002 to 2006 and then Bush and the Democrats raised it again three more times before Obama and the Democrats raised it three times.
On June 28, 2002, the debt ceiling was raised from $5.95 trillion to $6.4 trillion. S.2578, which became Public Law 107-199, was opposed by only 15 Republicans in the Senate and 6 in the House. It was 206 out of 210 Democrats in the House that opposed the increase.
On April 27, 2003, the debt ceiling was raised from $6.4 trillion to $7.384 trillion. H.J. Res.51, which became Public Law 108-24, was opposed by just 1 Republican in the Senate. In the House the Gephardt Rule came into effect. House Rule XXVII, called the Gephardt rule (after congressman Richard Gephardt) provides for the automatic engrossment of a House joint resolution increasing the public debt limit once Congress agrees to the conference report on a budget resolution, in this case the H.Con.Res.95 conference report. And how did Republicans vote on this conference report on the bloated FY 2004 budget? Only 7 Republicans voted against it.
On November 18, 2004, the debt ceiling was raised from $7.384 trillion to $8.184 trillion. S.2986, which became Public Law 108-415, was again opposed by just 1 Republican in the Senate and by 10 Republicans in the House. Every voting Democrat voted against raising the debt limit.
On March 20, 2006, the debt ceiling was raised from $8.184 trillion to $8.965 trillion. H.J. Res.47, which became Public Law 109-182, was opposed by only 3 Republicans in the Senate. Not a single Democrat in the Senate voted in favor of raising the debt limit. In the House the Gephardt Rule once again came into effect. But how did House Republicans vote on the H.Con.Res.95 conference report for the FY 2007 budget? Only 15 of them (out of 232) opposed it.
The next time the debt ceiling was raised, on September 29, 2007, the Republicans began to turn into fiscal conservatives. H.J.Res.43, which became Public Law 100-91, raised the debt limit from $8.965 trillion to $9.815 trillion. This time 20 Republicans in the Senate voted in opposition. Because of the Gephardt Rule in the House, we need to look at the S.Con.Res.21 conference report on the FY 2008 budget to gage Republican opposition. It turns out that no Republicans in the House voted yes.
On July 30, 2008, the debt ceiling was raised from $9.815 trillion to $10.615 trillion. H.R. 3221, the "Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008" (the Bush bailout), which became Public Law 110-289, was opposed by 13 Republicans in the Senate and 149 in the House.
On October 3, 2008, the debt ceiling was raised from $10.615 trillion to $11.315 trillion. H.R.1424, the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008" (the TARP bailout), which became Public Law 110-343, was opposed by 15 Republicans in the Senate and 108 in the House.
What turned many Republicans in the Senate and a majority in the House into fiscal conservatives when it came time to raise the debt ceiling in 2007 and 2008? Could it have anything to do with the Democrats winning back control of the Congress in the 2006 midterm elections?
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and the Democrats held on to their majority in Congress, the Republicans almost unanimously resisted any increase in the debt ceiling. On February 17, 2009, the debt limit was raised from $11.315 trillion to $12.104 trillion. H.R.1, the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009" (Obama's stimulus plan) which became Public Law 111-5, was opposed by 38 out of 41 Republicans in the Senate and all 176 voting Republicans in the House. Then, as mentioned previously, when the debt ceiling was raised two more times under total Democratic control of the government (December of 2009 and February of 2010), there was unanimous Republican opposition.
Notice the progression here. Republicans have gone from almost unanimous support for raising the debt ceiling when they controlled the presidency and the Congress to generally opposing raising the debt ceiling when a Republican was president and the Democrats controlled Congress to almost unanimously opposing raising the debt ceiling when Democrats controlled the presidency and the Congress to unanimously opposing the Democrats the last two times they raised the debt ceiling. It should also be pointed out that when Republicans had a majority in the House and Senate under President Clinton, they voted twice to raise the debt limit (in 1996 & 1997).
The current Republican opposition to an additional increase in the debt limit is purely political, as is everything they do. Aside from fanatical Republican warmongers like John McCain, who believes the war against Libya to be "right and necessary," the Republicans in Congress generally oppose the $100 million a day it is costing to war against Libya because President Obama is a Democrat and/or he didn't come to the Congress for permission first. Few Republicans in Congress have a problem with the continued funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the tune of $2.5 billion a week.
Now that the Republicans have a majority in the House, they are sure to compromise on raising the debt limit. Although, as I said earlier, House Republicans are currently overwhelming opposed to any additional hike in the debt limit, and most of them have expressed opposition to raising the debt limit under any circumstances, there is talk about making a balanced budget amendment, major spending cuts, or entitlement reform as conditions to raising the debt ceiling. And just listen to this doublespeak from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: "Republicans in the Senate will not be voting to raise the debt ceiling unless we do something significant about the debt."
But there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around here. As a U.S. senator, Barack Obama had four opportunities to vote on expanding the debt ceiling when George W. Bush was the president. He didn't vote on two occasions (in 2007 & 2008), but when the Republicans controlled the Congress and supported raising the debt limit in 2006, he voted against doing so (H.J.Res.47) and when the Democrats controlled the Congress and supported raising the debt limit in 2008, he voted in favor of doing so (H.R.1424). And although most congressional Democrats currently favor an increase in the debt limit, they fought against such an increase the four times the debt ceiling was raised when Bush was in office.
Rejecting an increase in the debt limit is the first step toward restoring fiscal sanity in Washington. It would force Congress to cut spending, and cut it drastically. The wars must be ended. The entitlements must be cut. Rolling back government spending to "pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels," as the House Republicans proposed in their "Pledge to America," will not cut it.
- Laurence M. Vance
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