The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who has the leverage on the debt ceiling?

On Jan. 22, members of the House and Senate discussed their approach to debt ceiling negotiations. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)
5 min

The last time our country faced a major showdown over the debt ceiling was in 2013. And, much like today’s standoff between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the two sides professed to be dug in. President Barack Obama said he wouldn’t negotiate over the matter, while then-House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted on spending cuts before the GOP would vote for anything.

And Boehner thought he had the leverage. “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time,” he asserted.

It was a technically accurate reading of the polls; it just wasn’t an accurate reading of the underlying political realities. Boehner and the GOP eventually caved when Obama held strong and we neared the deadline for a potentially catastrophic default on the nation’s debt. And when all was said and done, just 4 percent of Americans said Republicans or the tea party had emerged victorious.

There are many political issues on which you can get wildly different poll results depending upon how you ask the question. And the debt limit is near the top of that list.

It’s true that Americans broadly like the idea of tying spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling, as many 2013 polls showed. But it’s also true that this is mostly because their default mind-set is “spending cuts = good.” Polls regularly show that Americans overwhelmingly favor cutting the deficit and balancing the budget, and that they’re concerned about the national debt — at least in theory. Their appetite for brinkmanship in the service of that goal isn’t nearly so strong.

And that appetite may have even waned in the years since.

First, it’s worth a look back at what the 2013 polls said about this. In many of them, Americans said they wanted to include spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal.

A CBS News poll showed just 23 percent wanted the debt ceiling raised without conditions, while three-quarters wanted either spending cuts included (55 percent) or no debt ceiling increase at all (20 percent). A Fox News poll showed Americans said by a 62 percent to 27 percent margin that the debt limit should only be increased after “major cuts in government spending.” And a CBS/New York Times poll showed just 17 percent wanted a “clean” debt-limit increase. That was less even than the 24 percent who said it should not be raised, period.

Those are pretty striking numbers. Except these polls didn’t really explain what would happen if the debt ceiling was breached — something most Americans, undoubtedly, don’t really understand. What’s more, you get very different results when you ask the question another way.

Other polls did so: They didn’t ask whether Americans broadly supported attaching spending cuts to the debt limit, but whether these matters should be handled together or separately.

Americans overwhelmingly chose “separately.”

When Republicans decided to try using the debt ceiling and a potential government shutdown to defund Obamacare, the public balked. Even as the law was broadly unpopular at the time, Americans said the debt limit and health care should be handled separately by 52-31 percent, according to a National Journal poll.

As the October deadline approached, the poll again tested potential tie-ins, and by that point each was even more unpopular.

A one-year Obamacare delay? “Separately” won 65-31 percent. Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline? “Separately,” 70-24. Cuts in domestic discretionary spending? Keep it separated, 60-30. Cuts in Medicare and other entitlements? Separate, 68-29.

The findings echoed a Washington Post-ABC News poll from early that year that showed Americans favored keeping spending cuts overall separate from the debt ceiling by a 58-36 margin.

Which brings us to today. A new Post-ABC poll has now asked a very similar question again, and the split is even more lopsided in favor of separation. Fully 65 percent say debt payment and spending cuts should be divorced from one another, while just 25 percent say the government should be enabled to pay its debts “only if the Biden administration also agrees to cut federal spending.”

The question was preceded by another asking people how concerned they are about damage to the economy by the country potentially defaulting on its debts; this likely colored these responses and might account for the wider split than in 2013. But the specter of such economic consequences is an inherent feature of this exercise.

And Democrats and the Biden administration could make a compelling case by both noting those potential consequences and emphasizing that Congress has plenty of other separate opportunities to cut spending, including through its normal budget process (which, it bears emphasizing, racked up these bills in the first place).

That doesn’t mean things will turn out like they did in 2013, with the GOP throwing in the towel. Republicans got some pretty big concessions in another showdown in 2011, via the sequester. And it’s possible the House Freedom Caucus will be more willing and able to take things to the brink than the tea party was in 2013 — at which point, who knows what happens?

But as the debt ceiling debate begins in earnest with President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and with upcoming polls likely to show that Americans like the idea of including spending cuts in it, it’s worth remembering that it’s not quite so simple.