The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s debt is truly bipartisan

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily briefing at the White House on Oct. 4. (Susan Walsh/AP)

During her news briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki unveiled a graph that, at first glance, made a seemingly deceptive point. It compared the amount of debt accrued by both President Biden, a bit under $700 billion, and by former president Donald Trump — nearly $8 trillion. This is not a surprising disparity, certainly, since Biden has been president for about nine months and Trump was president for four years.

But Psaki’s point wasn’t that Trump had accrued far more debt during his presidency than had Biden. It was, instead, that the spending that had pushed the debt up against the federal debt limit had been authorized under Trump’s presidency. So that, in opposing an increase to that limit, Republicans were essentially refusing to pay a bill that had been received under their party’s president.

“What [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell is refusing to do is to pay the debts of what were rung up under his leadership when he was in the Senate — still continues to be, of course — and when Trump was President,” Psaki said. “The debt limit is about paying for bills we have already spent. It is not about — it is not about initiatives that we’re talking about and debating now.”

This is broadly true, though it’s still a bit misleading. America’s debt is a function of spending by presidents and legislators of both parties and, without the totality of that past spending, there would be no reason to increase the debt limit.

The Department of the Treasury publishes a daily measure of the federal debt. As of writing, it stands at about $28.4 trillion. The debt limit is meant to be an upper constraint on that amount but, as we reported last week, it generally just serves as a sort of benchmark past which the debt regularly surges. Here, for example, is the debt by day since early 1993, with the existing debt ceilings indicated in gray. Debt rises, nears the ceiling — and Congress raises the ceiling.

In recent years, though, these increases have become contentious. Republicans figured out that the increases provided a point of leverage at which they could intone gravely about the mounting debt and have not been shy about doing so. So we have the current moment, in which Republicans reject the idea of raising the ceiling further, despite the fact that the country is continuing to spend money it doesn’t have.

What’s useful to note about Psaki’s argument is that for much of Trump’s presidency there was no debt limit. Twice, Congress agreed to simply suspend the limit, letting the government accrue as much debt as it needed to pay its bills. When the suspensions ended, the new limit was set at the current level. So when the suspension agreed to in 2019 ended at the end of July of this year, the country suddenly had a new debt limit equal to the amount of debt that already existed. Yes, more than $6 trillion was added to the debt during that suspension, but had $0 been added, the ceiling would still have popped back into place without any breathing room at all.

But even so, that debt was a function of spending approved by Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate and Republicans in the White House and Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House and Democrats in the White House. About 40 percent of the existing debt was accrued during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Biden; about 45 percent was accrued during George W. Bush’s and Trump’s. The rest mostly predates Clinton. Over the past 30 years, of course, control of Congress has bounced back and forth between parties.

Slice that total debt in half and the debt limit is just fine where it is.

In other words, Psaki is right that raising the debt ceiling is not somehow granting Biden some new ability to spend money. Again, had he magically stopped the government from spending a single dollar since noon on Jan. 20, 2021, the limit would still have kicked back in on Aug. 1 without any new ability to increase debt. That’s because of what was spent during Trump’s administration … and during Obama’s, when Biden was vice president. Also during George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s when Biden was in the Senate.

Mitch McConnell knows all of this, of course. Psaki’s not trying to convince him that this is Trump’s fault. She’s trying to convince you.