As House Republicans clash with the Biden administration over how to address the debt ceiling, many in Washington are getting feelings of déjà vu, and rightly so. They really have been here before.
In the last four decades, Congress has addressed the debt ceiling 48 times, according to Congressional Research Service, either increasing the debt limit or suspending it for a period of time. Indeed, Quorum data shows that more than 80 percent of current House members have cast a vote on the debt ceiling in the past, and more than half of them have voted both for and against an increase.
The reason the debt ceiling is a perennial issue—and often a legislative fight—is systemic. The amount that the U.S. Treasury Department can borrow is restricted by law. If the Treasury needs more money to cover U.S. obligations, that limit (currently about $31.4 trillion) has to be increased by Congress. Without action from Congress, the U.S. could default on its debts, which experts say could have a catastrophic impact on the global economy.
That makes debt ceiling bills “must pass” legislation, which can be an opportunity for some in Congress to press their agenda by attaching it to something that is very likely to be approved. In the last 40 years, only about 40 percent of congressional action on the debt ceiling has been via “clean” stand-alone bills. The remaining 60 percent has been part of a package of legislation.
The Clash Over Debt Ceiling Legislation in 2023
That dynamic is at the core of the current debate, in which House Republicans narrowly passed a bill that would address the debt ceiling but also contains various Republican policy priorities. That includes a cap on discretionary government spending, clawing back unspent pandemic relief money, and eliminating Democratic efforts to beef up the IRS, forgive student loan debt, and initiate clean-energy tax breaks.
The Biden administration and the Democrats who control the Senate reject that bill and, though Biden has said he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling, all parties are now in discussions about how to move forward. The deadline for a remedy is as early as June 1, which is when the Treasury Department says the U.S. could breach the current debt ceiling.
The sticking point on any debt ceiling bill is likely to be the House, where Republicans hold a narrow majority and want concessions. Biden and the Democrats who control the Senate want a discrete bill that simply addresses the debt limit. The two sides have very little time to reach agreement and get a bill through both chambers.
How the Current House Has Voted on the Debt Ceiling in the Past
When and if they do get there, how lawmakers vote on debt ceiling bills is complicated. The issue involves many different factors, ranging from ideology and party loyalty to the legislative compromise that is often in play on these bills. The idea that America’s economy and its global economic standing are on the line also weighs heavily on lawmakers.
Predictably, that has led to a mixed voting record among current members of the House. Here is what Quorum data shows:
- Almost 18 percent of the House—80 members—has never voted on a debt ceiling bill prior to this year. For most, that was because they were not members of the chamber when the last debt ceiling vote was taken in 2021.
- 82 percent of House members have a voting record on the debt ceiling, but they are less consistent than on many other issues. Roughly 55 percent of that 82 percent, or 196 members, have voted both for and against raising the debt limit in recent years. The remainder have been consistent in their vote, whether for or against raising the debt limit, though many have only been asked to vote on the debt ceiling once or twice.
- Party affiliation does not seem to have a heavy impact on consistency. Those who have voted for and against a debt ceiling increase were split evenly; 51.5 percent were Democrats and 48.5 percent were Republicans. Those who were consistent with their votes also represented both parties evenly; 54 percent were Republicans and 46 percent were Democrats.
- 73 Democrats have voted only to support a debt-limit increase. 85 Republicans have voted only to oppose such an effort.
The Next Debt Ceiling Vote
While Congress is often criticized for doing little, it has passed high-impact bills in recent sessions. In the last two years, lawmakers passed the first gun safety bill in decades, a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, an historic investment to fight climate change, caps on some prescription drug costs, and legislation to provide billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.
But landmark bills are unlikely to continue in the months ahead. One reason the debt ceiling bill is getting so much attention is that legislation is likely to slow down with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate. The 2024 election is also likely to have a cooling effect. While it is still 18 months off, the idea that next year’s races will decide which party controls the White House and Congress is likely to diminish interest in controversial bills. Legislative leaders will not want to force tough votes on their members when they are facing voters.
The bottom line: must-pass bills are likely to be less frequent. That makes the current debt-ceiling bill an opportunity—and it will be hard-fought.
Original article published Aug 26, 2017: