The debt limit. Some regard it as an outdated concept. Others think it’s a last chance to control the federal government’s bloated spending.
The debt limit or “debt ceiling” means the federal government can’t go into debt any further than Congress allows. And Congress has allowed more and more debt over years, as the chart on the right shows.
Last week, Congress suspended the debt limit until the spring of 2015. The new debt limit will be set on March 16th, 2015, at the amount of debt the government has run up by that time.
This idea was pretty well agreed upon by the leadership of the House and Senate, which did not want a fight. But it wasn’t agreed to by everyone. And Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) used Senate rules to expose some of his colleagues for allowing what he sees as a get-along go-along deal.
If nobody objects, a bill like S. 540, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act, can sail through the Senate without a vote at all. But if someone objects, they can require votes, including a thing called a “cloture” vote, which requires three-fifths of senators, or 60 votes, to approve. It’s a vote on ending debate and proceeding with a bill, so it says, “Yeah, I’d be alright with this bill passing.”
The 60-vote requirement means that some Republicans would have to vote for cloture. They would have to be alright with suspending the debt limit and, in the view of some, letting the government’s spending continue.
Senator Cruz doesn’t think Republicans should be letting that happen, so he used these Senate rules to put his colleagues on the record with a vote.
The results of the cloture vote are here. Just getting to 60 votes would have caused one or two senators to be exposed as providing the crucial vote that allowed the debt limit to be suspended, so the vote was held open while big numbers of Republicans were persuaded to vote this way.
And the Republican senators who backed the cloture on S. 540 were:
John Barrasso (WY)
Susan Collins (ME)
Bob Corker (TN)
John Cornyn (TX)
Jeff Flake (AZ)
Orrin Hatch (UT)
Mike Johanns (NE)
Mark Kirk (IL)
John McCain (AZ)
Mitch McConnell (KY)
Lisa Murkowski (AK)
John Thune (SD)
None of them voted in favor of the bill on the final vote. They just helped it clear the last big hurdle before the final vote.
So will they suffer the repercussions Senator Cruz thinks should meet a Republican who compromises on spending? That depends on the voters in their states. That depends on you.
(In the past, Republicans have sought to win spending constraints from debates about the debt ceiling. For a time, though, this bill was going to have some spending increases in it—reversing a reduction in the cost‐of‐living adjustment for military retirees. Because that plan to spend about $60 per family was also going to extend sequester-like spending controls to 2024, it was going to total about $10 in spending per U.S. family. In the end, it was a “clean” bill—no new spending or spending cuts.)
Alright, enough of the politics. It’s time to take your medicine. Here’s some recent history of the debt ceiling:
The federal government reached the debt limit on May 16, 2011, prompting then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to declare a “debt issuance suspension period,” allowing certain extraordinary measures to extend Treasury’s borrowing capacity.
On August 2, 2011, President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (Public Law 112-25), which tried to reduce spending while allowing the debt limit to rise between $2,100 billion and $2,400 billion in three stages.
Once the Budget Control Act was enacted, presidential certifications triggered a $400 billion increase, raising the debt limit to $14,694 billion, and then a second $500 billion increase on September 22, 2011. A disapproval measure for this increase (H.J. Res. 77) only passed the House. A January 12, 2012, presidential certification triggered a third, $1.2 trillion increase in the debt, while the House passed another disapproval measure (H.J. Res. 98).
The federal debt again reached its limit on December 31, 2012, and extraordinary measures were then used to allow payment of government obligations until February 4, 2013, when Public Law 113-3, the “No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013,” suspended the debt limit until May 19, 2013. As of May 19, the debt limit was set at $16,699 billion and extraordinary measures were again employed.
On September 25, 2013, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew notified Congress that the government would exhaust its borrowing capacity around October 17. The U.S. Treasury would then have a cash balance of only $30 billion. In Public Law 113-46, the Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014, Congress suspended the debt limit again, until February 7, 2014. Those “extraordinary measures” kept things going until the votes in the House and Senate this past week on S. 540, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act.
So that’s the story on the debt ceiling. You’re going to win “Mr./Ms. Conversational” with that info at your next cocktail party!
Here’s the current vote on it among WashingtonWatch.com users. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article about the bill.