“You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and nothing to do with the debt.”

— President Obama, remarks to the Business Roundtable, Sept. 18, 2013

When a president makes a lawyerly comment, it’s time to start looking for the trap door. At first President Obama uses a sweeping “never in the history of the United States” but then he concludes with a caveat: “nothing to do with the budget and nothing to do with the debt.”

The issue at hand is the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which many congressional Republicans would like to repeal or delay as part of a vote to extend the debt ceiling–even though establishment Republicans, such as former Bush aide Karl Rove, regard the effort as a kamikaze mission with little hope of success.

Generally, raising the debt ceiling has been routine and not especially controversial. But, as we have noted before, starting in 1953 during the Dwight Eisenhower administration, fiscal conservatives in Congress at times have used the debt limit as a way to force concessions by the executive branch on spending. Eisenhower, a Republican, had particular trouble with a Democrat, Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, over the debt ceiling because Byrd was skeptical of Eisenhower’s plans to build the national highway system.

That dispute was about a budget issue, which the president seemed to exclude in his comment. But unfortunately for the president’s claim, there are other, compelling examples that contradict it.

The Facts

In 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), sought to attach a campaign finance reform bill to the debt ceiling after the Watergate-era revelations about Nixon’s fundraising during the 1972 election. Their efforts were defeated by a filibuster, but it took days of debate and the lawmakers were criticized by commentators (and fellow lawmakers) for using “shotgun” tactics to try to hitch their pet cause to emergency must-pass legislation.

President Obama said that GOP lawmakers now are trying to “extort” repeal of the health care law via the debt limit, but that’s also what Democrats wanted to do with President Nixon, who opposed the campaign-finance reforms.

Indeed, Linda K. Kowalcky and Lance T. LeLoup wrote in a comprehensive study of the politics of the debt limit, for Public Administration Review,  that “during this period, the genesis of a pattern developed that would eventually become full blown in the mid-1970s and 1980s: the use of the debt ceiling vote as a vehicle for other legislative matters.”

Previously, they noted, the debt limit bill had been linked to the mechanics of debt management, but now anything was fair game. Major changes in Social Security were attached to the debt bill; another controversial amendment sought to end the bombing in Cambodia. Kowalcky and LeLoup list 25 nongermane amendments that were attached to debt-limit bills between 1978 and 1987, including allowing voluntary school prayer, banning busing to achieve integration and proposing a nuclear freeze.

In 1982, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker unleashed a free-for-all by allowing 1,400 nongermane amendments to the debt ceiling legislation, which resulted in five weeks of raucous debate that mostly focused on limiting federal court jurisdiction over school payer and busing. The debt limit only passed after lawmakers decided to strip all of the amendments from the bill.

One of the most striking examples of a president being forced to accept unrelated legislation on a debt-ceiling bill took place in 1980. The House and Senate repealed a central part of President Jimmy Carter’s energy policy — an oil import fee that was expected to raise the cost of gasoline by 10 cents a gallon. Carter vetoed the bill, even though the United States was close to default, and then the House and Senate overrode his veto by overwhelming numbers (335-34 in the House; 68-10 in the Senate).

“Foes of the fee succeeded in linking the two measures to gain added leverage for killing the fee,” The Washington Post reported on Carter’s stunning defeat. “The Treasury Department immediately announced it was resuming the sale of bonds, which it suspended Thursday night when the debt ceiling expired.”

To be sure, the success rate of attaching nongermane amendments to a debt-limit bill is relatively low. Anita S. Krishnakumar, in a 2007 paper for the Harvard Journal on Legislation, said that less than 10 percent of the debt limit bills passed between 1978 and 2002 contained amendments not related to the debt or budget. Only twice — in 1980 and in 1995 — did Congress successfully pass amendments opposed by the president. But as Carter’s defeat shows, Congress has used the debt limit to repeal a key legislative priority of a president.

In response, the Obama White House provided us with information on the negative impact on the economy during the 2011 debt-ceiling impasse, but did not comment on the examples listed above. (Update: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, at his news briefing on Thursday, pushed back against our findings, saying,  “It is absolutely correct that, prior to 2011, no party to the budget agreements of the past had ever threatened default if it did not get its way ideologically. It did not happen.” We will note that this is not what the president said at the Business Roundtable.)

The Pinocchio Test

Clearly, Obama’s sweeping statement does not stand up to scrutiny, even with his caveat. Time and again, lawmakers have used the “must-pass” nature of the debt limit to force changes in unrelated laws. Often, the effort fails — as the GOP drive to repeal Obamacare almost certainly will. But Kowalcky and LeLoup speculate that one reason why Congress has not eliminated the debt limit, despite the political problems it poses, is because lawmakers enjoy the leverage it provides against the executive branch.

There’s an old reporter’s rule that you want to avoid using the word “unprecedented.” Otherwise, a professor might call or e-mail the next day to dispute it.

Let’s add this rule for politicians: Never say “never.”

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