Mitch McConnell Doesn’t Get the Point of the Debt Limit

Sometime next month, the United States will run up against its statutory debt limit. Unless Congress raises the ceiling, the federal government will either default on the national debt or be compelled to freeze critical domestic and defense initiatives — or possibly, even both.

The Biden administration has asked Congress to raise the debt limit, meeting what was once a routine responsibility of governing. But Republicans in Congress have refused. Given the minority’s ability to block nearly all legislation in the Senate, they have the power to hurl the country over an economic cliff, costing millions of jobs and erasing trillions of dollars in household wealth, overnight.Advertisement

To be clear, in asking for a boost to the debt limit, the Biden administration isn’t asking Congress to pay for new programs. It’s asking Congress to finance initiatives the government has already authorized and costs it has already incurred — including $7.8 trillion in debt that the Trump administration racked up in just four years, principally owing to tax cuts for corporations and wealthy earners that Republicans approved on a party-line vote.

This isn’t a new story. The Republican Party has wielded the debt limit as a partisan cudgel since 2009. When a Republican president is in power, they happily rely on bipartisan congressional support to ensure the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. When a Democrat occupies the White House, they weaponize the debt limit and refuse to participate in its adjustment. It’s a tale of unabashed partisanship — but by now, it’s a familiar tale.

There is another dimension of the debate, however, that goes unnoticed. The idea of a “limit” or “ceiling” on the public debt sounds like an important constraint on borrowing, the kind of thing the Constitution demands to keep a runaway White House in check. In reality, it’s a 20th century innovation, originally intended to give more, not less, authority to the president. A measure born of necessity during World War I and World War II to allow the Wilson and Roosevelt administrations greater leeway in financing government operations has evolved into a partisan noose.

Understanding the origins of the debt limit places into sharp focus how radical its current weaponization really is.

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