WASHINGTON — In the battle to raise the debt ceiling, politics usually trumps principle.
How else to explain the 180-degree turns that lawmakers of both parties have made in congressional debt-ceiling votes since 2002?
President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the biggest supporters today for boosting the debt limit, voted against it in 2006.
"The fact that we're here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure," then-Sen. Obama of Illinois said on the Senate floor in March 2006. "It is a sign that the U.S. government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government's reckless fiscal policies."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wants to shift all blame for lifting today's debt limit to Obama and leave no GOP fingerprints on it, voted to increase the debt limit seven times from 2002 to 2008, when Republican George W. Bush was president. But since Obama took office, McConnell has voted against it three times.
Even McConnell's budget-cutting colleague, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voted for stand-alone debt-limit increases in 2002 and 2004, raising the debt limit to $6.4 trillion and $8.2 trillion.
Dozens of other lawmakers have made similar flip-flops. In fact, they've become the rule rather than the exception in debt-limit debates.
"There really is no other issue on which the hypocrisy is so bipartisan and so consistent year after year after year," said Bruce Bartlett, who was a top Treasury Department official during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. "Half of these guys who are opposed to increasing the debt limit have voted multiple times to increase it in the past. The only difference is one of their guys was president."
Who's president makes all the difference in debt-ceiling votes, because ultimately "presidents always want to raise the debt limit and treasury secretaries always want to raise the debt limit," said Donald Marron, the director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, two center-left research centers.
When the same party controls the White House and the Senate, expect that party's Senate members to support the president, who'll get little or no backing from the minority camp. That's what happened in stand-alone Senate debt-ceiling votes in 2003, 2004 and 2006, when Republican senators provided nearly all the votes to raise the debt ceiling for Bush.
"If you're a Democrat, there just wasn't a lot of reason to take the political pain of voting for a debt-limit increase, whereas the Republicans had to round up enough votes to do it," Marron said.
Democratic senators then passed Obama's stand-alone debt-limit increases with almost no Republican support in 2009 and 2010.
"What you see for these votes is a great deal of political jockeying to see who gets to vote no, which is really a much more political thing than a substantive thing," Marron said.
Fewer stand-alone votes were taken in the House of Representatives, but when they occurred, the results were nearly identical. House Democrats cast nearly all "yea" votes in 2009 and 2010 under Obama, while Republicans did the same in 2002 and 2004, when Bush was president.
The only exceptions came in 2002 and 2007, when government was divided between a Republican president and the Democrats in control of the Senate. In those votes to increase the debt ceiling, Senate Democrats and Republicans cast nearly equal numbers of "yea" votes.
"There was shared responsibility (in 2002 and 2007), so both of them bore the burden of governing, and both had to round up votes to increase the debt limit," Marron explained.
Blame the politics on the quirkiness of the two-step U.S. budget process. No other country votes on a budget resolution to determine how much to spend, then votes again to raise the debt limit to make that spending possible.
For years, the "Gephardt rule" — named for its author, former Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. — eliminated the need for a debt-ceiling vote in the House by simply deeming the debt limit increased once the budget resolution was adopted. House Republicans abolished the Gephardt rule, however, to get more leverage in the debt-ceiling debate.
Marron said Congress needed an incentive to complete the budget process in a responsible manner but that the implicit threat of default went too far.
A better solution, he said, would be to abolish the debt limit altogether because it institutionalizes economic brinksmanship and puts politics ahead of substance.
The Bipartisan Policy Center's Debt Reduction Task Force, chaired by former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and former White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin, offered a different solution. Their "save-as-you-go" proposal would set annual savings goals and mandate automatic spending cuts, reductions in tax breaks or tax increases if Congress didn't achieve the goals.
"You want something in the budget process that says, 'If you don't get your act together, something will happen,' " Marron explained. "But I think the debt limit is a bit overboard, with the implicit threat of default."
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