The Partisan History of the Debt Ceiling

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We wrote this blog post about the debt ceiling in January. As yet another debt ceiling showdown looms, we thought a look back at the history of these (increasingly bitter) debates might be in order once again. We didn’t have to change a word.

Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981.

Ronald Reagan gives a televised address from the Oval Office, outlining his plan for Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981. (Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

As we head toward what will likely be another rancorous debt ceiling debate, the writers at The Guardian’s Datablog have updated their great series of charts that tell the ceiling’s story.

Since 1944, America’s debt ceiling has been increased 94 times. Up until the mid-90s, it was a pretty routine part of congressional business. But in the fall of 1995, Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and John Boehner announced that within seven years they wanted $245 billion in tax cuts, entitlement reform and a balanced budget. President Clinton refused to give in and Americans dealt with the most serious government shutdown in U.S. history. In early 1996, when Moody’s announced they were considering downgrading America’s debt rating, the Republicans finally folded.

“The most crucial difference between Clinton’s debt limit battle and the current crisis is that, in 1996, the Republicans were bluffing. No Republican seriously considered defaulting on the debt to be a viable option,” Kara Brandeisky wrote in The New Republic.

A decade and a half later, in 2011, the debates created a stalemate that lead to an actual credit downgrade. (Clinton said that if he were still president, he would use the 14th Amendment — which many think makes the concept of debt ceilings unconstitutional — to bypass Congress. President Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, has so far resisted that option.)

Given the recent reluctance of the more conservative wing of the GOP to raise the ceiling, and the general GOP resistance to raising taxes, you may be surprised to learn that over the years Republican presidents have raised the debt ceiling more times than Democratic presidents.

In fact, the debt ceiling was increased the most times under President Reagan.


Although the debt ceiling has been increased more frequently under Republican administrations, the amount it has been raised has been smaller on average than increases that occurred during the tenure of Democratic presidents.

For more data on the debt ceiling, including the number of times it has been lowered (yes, it happens, though not recently), take a look at The Guardian’s Datablog.

John Light is a writer and digital producer for the Moyers team. His work has been published by The Atlantic, Grist, Slate, Vox, Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Public Radio International and elsewhere. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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