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A decade of debt ceiling votes in one graphic

By Ezra Klein,

Third Way has a nice graphic summing up the last 10 years of votes to increase the debt ceiling. The takeaway is predictable: When Republicans run things, they provide the votes to increase the debt limit, and when Democrats run things, they provide the votes to increase the debt limit. As Third Way says, “if there is a principle involved, it seems to be this: whose problem is it?”

But it’s not enough to glance at this chart and write this fight off as more Kabuki theatre. The debt ceiling is a bomb. And where defusing the bomb used to be a bipartisan duty, now it’s become a partisan, polarizing process, where whichever party doesn’t have to take responsibility for the bomb going off either jeers from the sidelines or uses the filibuster and/or control of one chamber to make it harder for the majority party to defuse the bomb. Usually, their efforts are for naught and the bomb is disarmed. But the whole process makes it much likelier that one or the other party will eventually fail, and the bomb will finally go off. And it only needs to go off once for the damage to be done.

What’s so striking is that all of this is completely unnecessary. The debt ceiling serves no obvious purpose. Most countries don’t have debt ceiling votes at all. The government is simply empowered to borrow whatever money is necessary to implement the laws the legislature has passed. If the legislature wants them to borrow less money, they pass laws making borrowing so much money unnecessary. Instead, we pass budgets and tax cuts and continuing resolutions with no mention of the debt ceiling, and then we occasionally have these in­cred­ibly reckless arguments over whether the government will continue paying its bills or stop paying its bills and lose its status as the world’s reserve currency. Sometimes, you wonder whether we deserve to be a superpower.

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