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This is not the first time the debt ceiling has been taken hostage

By Ezra Klein,

President Bill Clinton receives a temporary borrowing bill, which he then vetoed, from White House staff secretary Todd Stern in the Oval Office, Nov. 13, 1995. Clinton accused Republicans of prompting the budget impasse to impose their budget priorities on him. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) “Historically,” writes Matt Yglesias, “the debt ceiling vote has been pure kabuki, an opportunity for opposition party politicians to say mean things about the incumbent president.” Jon Chait agrees. “The debt ceiling vote was always a stick of dynamite lying around, but as long as the opposition party used it only to embarrass the president, it contained little systemic risk. The novel practice of the debt ceiling as a threat to force other parties to accept otherwise-unacceptable policy goals is completely new, and itself a kind of Constitutional crisis.”

But this is wrong. In 1995, congressional Republicans ran the same play that the GOP is trying this year, threatening to let the debt ceiling cave in if President Bill Clinton didn’t give in to their demands. Those demands? Legislation to “curtail appeals by death row prisoners,” eliminate the Commerce Department, and a “down payment” on deficit reduction.

The response will sound familiar. Clinton called the demands “economic blackmail, pure and simple.” The New York Times editorialized that Republicans were “playing an ugly game of political coercion that will force President Clinton to accept dubious programs that he would otherwise veto or else risk endangering the Government’s credit rating.” It all sounds much like the current situation, though former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who steered us through the 1995 crisis, thinks the fragility of the recovery and our long-term debt outlook makes 2011 a much more dangerous year for economic shenanigans than 1995 ever was.

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