The politics of the debt ceiling — in 1 chart

January 18, 2013

President Obama's recent refusal to let Republicans use increasing the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip -- and the House GOP's plan to pass a three-month extension on the country's borrowing limit -- raised a simple question: Was the debt ceiling always this much of a political football?

Viewed through the long lens of history, the answer is no.  As Dylan Matthews and Ezra Klein wrote on the Post's Wonkblog:

"Between 1940 and 2010, we have increased the debt limit more than 70 times, and from 1979 to 1995, a House rule proposed by Rep. Richard Gephardt made increases automatic by raising the ceiling whenever new spending is approved. The new Republican majority repealed this rule in 1995 in order to use raising the debt ceiling as leverage in getting President Clinton to agree to spending cuts."

But a look at more recent history suggests that how the two parties in Congress feel about raising the debt ceiling depends largely on which side controls the levers of government at the moment. That is, when Democrats held the White House, House and Senate their House members were much more likely to vote for debt ceiling increases than when Republicans were in charge of the executive and legislative branches.  The same is true of Republicans in the House.

Below is a chart put together by the good people at the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation -- a Fix favorite! -- that details the House votes on the debt ceiling between 1993 and 2011.

You can check out the chart yourself, but to cite just one example that makes this point take a look at how House Republicans have voted on the debt ceiling in the past six years.  Since Barack Obama has taken office, there have been four debt ceiling votes. Zero Republicans voted to increase the borrowing limit three times and 174 voted to do so the fourth time in the summer of 2011. (The reason for the change was that the 2011 debt ceiling increase included $2.4 trillion in spending cuts.)

But, when Republicans controlled the House, Senate and the presidency in 2002 and 2004, there were 212 and 204 House GOPers who voted in favor of raising the debt limit when it came up for a vote in those two years, respectively. When the GOP lost control of the House in the 2006 election and President George W. Bush was a pariah within the party, the "yes" votes from Republicans dropped to 45 in the summer of 2008 and 91 that fall.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Chris Cillizza | January 18, 2013