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The Debt Ceiling Is Congress’s Dumbest and Most Dangerous Game

Lawmakers agreed to raise the debt limit until 2023, but the fear of a breach is only mounting.

Statues depicting Grief and History stand watch over the U.S. Capitol.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Statues depicting Grief and History stand watch over the U.S. Capitol, no doubt wondering when lawmakers might stop dragging the nation into constant debt ceiling crises.

This week, Congress steered itself out of yet another crisis of its own making when it once again managed to successfully raise the debt ceiling. But if you think this means that Congress can finally get important things done now, think again. To raise the debt limit this time around, the Senate had to arrange a bizarre kludge, in which Republicans agreed to briefly suspend the filibuster because they definitely would filibuster the measure if they could. And, no, what I have described does not really make sense. But it’s precisely this kind of nonsense that should give you cause for worry.

There are two important things to know about the debt ceiling. The first is that the debt ceiling is dumb. Most nations do not have one, and those that do manage them without experiencing America’s perennial courtings of disaster. Raising the debt ceiling in the United States does not actually create more debt or permit new spending—it’s merely a ritual incantation where Congress acknowledges that it’s passed laws, allocated money, and will honor those commitments for the sake of our sovereign credit.

You cannot blame the public for misconstruing what the debt ceiling really is. For many decades, debt ceiling votes provided an occasion for lawmakers on both sides to make grandstanding speeches castigating the other party for its spending priorities. When President Barack Obama—who was no stranger to making these kinds of disingenuous speeches—was in the Grand Bargain phase of his presidency, he tried to use the debt limit as a fulcrum for negotiating over the deficit. This opened a Pandora’s box, and while Obama admirably reversed course, we’ve been having high-stakes crises about the debt ceiling on a more regular basis ever since.

That brings us to the second thing you need to know about the debt ceiling: It’s dangerous. No one really knows what will happen if we breach the debt limit because no one’s been crazy enough to find out. But most experts say that something very catastrophic will occur. Certainly the Treasury would not be able to make payments; worse still, it would likely bring on a global recession. Simply nearing a breach has, in the past, resulted in the downgrade of the nation’s credit rating and cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

A healthy appreciation of these dire consequences has kept the world spinning forward. But Republicans began shedding their fears of default a long time ago—and transformed into a party willing to countenance a debt limit breach. In 2011, GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann put breaching the debt limit on her presidential platform. Within two years, other Republicans had swung in the same direction, with default crackpots growing in numbers. During one tense period in 2013, Politico reported that “more than half” of Republicans in Congress were happy to push the nation into default if their political demands weren’t met.

The Republican base followed the signals from both Republican leaders and elite opinion, which, as Alec MacGillis reported in TNR at the time, was also starting to slide in the wrong direction. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from September 2013 found that Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling by a 61–25 percent margin. Republican respondents also believed, in similar numbers (66–27 percent), that a debt limit breach would “cause serious economic harm,” but despite that, they still supported not raising the limit. As The Washington Post reported: “Among Republicans who believe not raising it would cause serious economic harm, a majority say don’t raise it by 53–32.” (Emphasis mine.)

Again, it’s worth underscoring that debt ceiling kookery was emerging as a GOP consensus opinion eight years ago. Republicans have not exactly grown wiser in the intervening years. So it’s hardly a surprise that former President Donald Trump this week berated Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for not having “the guts to play the Debt Ceiling card, which would have given the Republicans a complete victory on virtually everything.” After all, it was Trump’s own appointee to the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, who declared in 2013: “We’re not going to default; there is no default.”

While the agreement reached by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate will push the next big debt ceiling vote past the midterm elections, it does set the stage for a high-stakes encounter in 2023. By that time, the GOP will likely have retaken control of one, if not both, houses of Congress. Consider the confluence of factors: The Republicans coming to Washington are not exactly paragons of sobriety, they will have the opportunity to damage whatever economic recovery Biden has wrought a year before the presidential election, and they’ve been threatening to breach the debt limit for years. How likely is it that we will keep staving off default? What happens when you hand the GOP something dumb and dangerous? It sure looks like we’re going to find out.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.