This brief article by James Surowiecki is a must-read. It says just about everything I’ve been trying to say about the debt ceiling situation, but more succinctly and with less rage. It also includes a useful history lesson:

The truth is that the United States doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have, a debt ceiling. Every other democratic country, with the exception of Denmark, does fine without one. There’s no debt limit in the Constitution. And, if Congress really wants to hold down government debt, it already has a way to do so that doesn’t risk economic chaos—namely, the annual budgeting process. The only reason we need to lift the debt ceiling, after all, is to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, we’ll face an absurd scenario in which Congress will have ordered the President to execute two laws that are flatly at odds with each other. If he obeys the debt ceiling, he cannot spend the money that Congress has told him to spend, which is why most government functions will be shut down. Yet if he spends the money as Congress has authorized him to he’ll end up violating the debt ceiling.

As it happens, the debt ceiling, which was adopted in 1917, did have a purpose once—it was a way for Congress to keep the President accountable. Congress used to exercise only loose control over the government budget, and the President was able to borrow money and spend money with little legislative oversight. But this hasn’t been the case since 1974; Congress now passes comprehensive budget resolutions that detail exactly how the government will tax and spend, and the Treasury Department borrows only the money that Congress allows it to. (It’s why TARP, for instance, required Congress to pass a law authorizing the Treasury to act.) This makes the debt ceiling an anachronism. These days, the debt limit actually makes the President less accountable to Congress, not more: if the ceiling isn’t raised, it’s President Obama who will be deciding which bills get paid and which don’t, with no say from Congress.

Read the whole thing. And also read Felix Salmon’s take. And then weep. And #PANIC.

Comments on "A debt ceiling history lesson"

3 Responses to “A debt ceiling history lesson”

  1. Mike R. Says:

    I think Surowiecki is mis-characterizing the pre-1917 situation. My understanding (based on several sources) is that, before the debt ceiling set an aggregate limit on outstanding debt, Congress would directly approve each separate debt issuance.

  2. Ken Nye Says:

    When no budget is passed for over 800 days, that stop gap appears meaningless.

  3. Joe Mama Says:

    And after reading Surowiecki’s article, read this rebuttal.

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