BEYOND THE NUMBERS
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) contends that linking an increase in the debt limit to budget deals is routine. In fact, such linkage is the exception — not the rule.
In a fact sheet, Boehner mentions seven debt-limit increases during the Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton years that included other budget-related measures. Boehner fails to say, however, that since President Reagan was inaugurated, Congress has enacted 45 different pieces of legislation raising the debt limit. The vast majority of them were not connected to major budget deals.
Moreover, most of Boehner’s examples undercut his argument for linking a debt-limit increase to a deficit-reduction agreement:
- Two of the examples — the 1985 and 1987 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings laws — proved largely ineffective for various reasons. Those laws achieved very little real deficit reduction. (See Appendix A here.)
- Two other bills on the Speaker’s list — debt-ceiling increases in 1989 and 1996 — reduced spending minimally or actually increased the deficit.
- Republicans strongly opposed two more of the laws — the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 — because they raised taxes. Almost three-quarters of House Republicans voted against the 1990 legislation, and House and Senate Republicans unanimously opposed the 1993 law.
In only one instance that the Speaker mentioned — the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997 — have Republicans supported a debt-ceiling increase that included significant, effective deficit reduction. And even in that case, later Congresses undid much of the spending cuts and all of the long-term deficit reduction by abandoning the discretionary caps for 2001 and 2002 and by enacting tax cuts in 2001, in violation of the pay-as-you-go rules included in the BBA of 1997.
So, despite what the Speaker argues, linking budget deals to debt limit legislation is not routine.
The larger point is that policymakers shouldn’t play politics with the debt limit, risking a catastrophic default. Instead, they should enact clean legislation that provides the needed increase in the debt limit and, separately, negotiate a balanced deficit-reduction package.