No, Democrats Never Really Held the Debt Limit Hostage

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 30 2013 8:45 AM

No, Democrats Never Really Held the Debt Limit Hostage

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Ronald Reagan never had it from Congress the way Barack Obama does.

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Charles C. Johnson is a careful reporter for the Daily Caller, an expert at digging through public records to find graft or hypocrisy. Example: It was Johnson who proved that former Institute for Study of War analyst Elizabeth O'Bagy both had a problem with disclosure and a problem with overstating her academic credentials. 

Today, Johnson attempts to prove a point that Republicans have been making before they release their full debt limit demands. "The Democratic Party," he writes, "has consistently battled debt ceiling increases when Republican presidents were in power." Fair-minded journalists have been wondering about this, wondering how many Pinocchios or Pants on Fire to assign Barack Obama when he says the GOP's current demands are without precedent. Johnson's near-total failure suggests that Obama might be right.

First of all: Consistently? Like, every time it's come up for a vote. Actually, no—not even Johnson really proves that. He finds three examples in the 1980s when the Democratic House did not quickly give Ronald Reagan a  debt limit increase. Exhibit A:

In 1981, the Democrats opposed efforts to increase the debt limit and accused Republicans of “conscience-less” politics targeting the poor, according to The Milwaukee Journal.

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This leaves out oodles of context. At the start of 1981, Republicans controlled the Senate and White House. Some Senate Republicans wanted to pass a debt limit increase and attach a tax cut.  Some Democrats, who had voted for debt limit increases under Jimmy Carter and been attacked by Republicans, balked. They didn't actually make demands, and from the outset they had a majority of members ready to vote for a clean debt limit increase. From the Feb. 2, 1981, edition of the New York Times:

The Speaker of the House, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts, has promised President Reagan that he will try to line up Democratic votes to support the requested increase in the debt ceiling. But he informed Mr. Reagan that he expected the Republicans to support the budget ceiling increase, and disavow ''budget-ceiling politics.''

The crisis, such as it was, lasted four more days. Sen. Robert Byrd, then the Democratic majority leader, said that his party only wanted to "depoliticize" the debt limit to prevent another campaign in which Democrats were pilloried for voting for it. O'Neill, however, was good to his word, and on Feb. 5 he pushed the debt limit increase through the House on a 305–104 vote. Most members of both parties voted for a debt limit increase with no extra riders.

That was Johnson's first example. His second is a 1983 Senate vote against the debt limit increase; at the time, Republicans controlled the Senate, and it was conservatives who temporarily thwarted the vote. But his third (and final) example is more promising—he finds a June 28, 1984, article in which Democrats beat two debt limit votes to gain leverage against defense spending increases in the Senate. This Washington Post story from the same day provides some more context.

In the latest debt-ceiling fight, Democrats want to force approval of a budget resolution setting a compromise figure for defense spending next year, while Republicans are delaying in hopes that the issue will be resolved in a more favorable arena, close to the $299 billion figure they negotiated with the White House several months ago. This was a cut of $13 billion from what Reagan originally proposed but represents a substantial increase over current spending.
The Republicans' so-far successful stall has angered and frustrated the Democrats, even those like House Budget Committee Chairman James R. Jones (D-Okla.) who normally refuse to hold debt measures hostage for other objectives.
Unless defense spending cuts are assured as part of a three-year deficit-reduction package of between $140 billion and $180 billion, the recent one-half percent increase in the prime rate "will just be the beginning" of a surge in interest rates, Jones warned in urging the House to block the debt-ceiling increase as a way of forcing the Senate to compromise on defense reductions.

That's a fair analogue to our current crisis, right? So how long did the impasse last? Just one more day: Democrats were criticized for the brinkmanship and passed a clean debt limit increase.

To recap: Raising the debt limit always been unpopular, and tough to explain to voters. A few times, Democrats balked at raising it for a few days to make a point, then caved in. Many more times, they've just voted for the damn thing. John Boehner's Republicans have only ever agreed to raise the debt limit if they won major policy concessions from the president. Both parties don't do it. One party does it. 

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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