President Obama, during his national press conference on Monday, urged Congress to act quickly to raise the debt ceiling. While that request is likely to fall on deaf GOP ears, America should take a deep breath and remember that our battle in Congress over the debt ceiling is arguably our longest civil war.
To give you a quick sense of how long the civil war over the debt ceiling has been raging in Congress consider the following five headlines spanning the last fifty years:
1) $308 Billion Debt Ceiling is Approved (June 15, 1962)
The Pittsburgh Press: The House has approved President Kennedy’s request to raise the national debt ceiling to a record 308 billion dollars after rejecting a Republican effort to trim the hike.
2) U.S. Raises Ceiling on National Debt (April 3, 1979)
The Montreal Gazette: The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation yesterday extending the government’s borrowing authority and preventing the U.S. from defaulting.
The vote by the House to accept Senate amendments and to send the legislation to the White House was 209-165. It came after the House rejected, 216-160, a Republican-led attempt to tack on a strong amendment calling for a balanced federal budget.
3) Senate Defeats Bill to Increase Debt Ceiling (November 1, 1983)
The New York Times: The Senate, in an extraordinary and unexpected move, defeated a bill late tonight to raise the nation’s debt limit, leaving the Treasury without the authority to borrow. Twenty-five Republicans joined 31 Democrats in voting against the bill. Twenty-eight Republicans and 11 Democrats voted for it.
The New York Times: President Clinton on Monday vetoed two bills intended to keep the Government in business as he and Republican leaders exchanged accusations of partisan irresponsibility and much of the Government prepared to shut down later today.
5) G.O.P. Strategy On Debt Ceiling (March 1, 2002)
The New York Times: Republican leaders who control both the Senate and the House told the Bush administration that they did not have enough votes to increase the legal limit on the national debt. The administration has asked Congress to raise the debt limit by $750 billion, to $6.7 trillion
As the linked headlines suggest, American history reveals neither Democrat presidents, such as JFK to Carter to Clinton, nor Republican ones — from Reagan to George W. Bush — have been able to avoid political conflict in raising our national debt ceiling. Contrary to revisionist attempts at history, Congress has rarely had the political will to add to our national debt without confronting major opposition by both major parties at various times.
No president has been more engaged in an ongoing battle over raising the debt ceiling than President Obama. The president was part of the 2006 Congress whose Democrat members firmly opposed the debt ceiling increase to nearly $9 trillion. The president, to be fair, was not alone in his opposition. He was joined by fellow Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) to name a few. Conversely, today's GOP champions opposing raising the debt ceiling are Senators Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) — among others — who all supported the 2006 debt ceiling increase.
Perhaps, President Obama's intimate familiarity with the congressional debt ceiling battle was what led him to sign the Budget Control Act of 2011. The combined multi-stage increase of the debt ceiling legislated to be between $2.1 and $2.4 trillion was the largest in American history. The Senate approved it with sufficient bi-partisan backing to produce a 74-26 result as well as a 269-161 affirmative support level in the House.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 was a truly remarkable achievement, in theory. If the spending reductions of the Act are put into effect, just over half the debt increase would be offset by decade-long reductions in future expenditures. It was not the "grand bargain" many hoped for but was a far cry from the partisan budget increase of less than two years earlier.
It is worth noting, the Budget Control Act of 2011 exceeded by half a trillion — the second largest increase in our debt ceiling history, the 2-12-2010 bill for $1.9 trillion. That bill was passed without bi-partisan support, as the Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.
All of which brings us back to Monday's press conference. Interestingly, President Obama reminded the nation paraphrasing, "The best solution to our deficit problem is to grow the economy." He further noted, "everyone understands that America cannot continue its spending levels nor can we ignore our need to enhance revenues."
On this point few can disagree, as America's spending to revenue picture has not changed greatly since our fiscal year 2010 results were tallied as represent graphically below.
You don't need to have a PhD in economics to realize if you are only collecting $1.7 trillion in total individual income tax and FICA collection, you cannot afford to pay out $1.4 trillion in Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid benefits and still fund the remaining $1.8 trillion of additional federal expenditures.
Congress has been losing the War on our National Debt Crisis for decades and no president of either party has been able to save America from becoming a casualty of this crisis. The historical statutory debt ceiling increases (sourced from Table 7.3 here; click graph for spreadsheet) reveal this game has gone on for more than half a century.
As the battle lines are drawn over the debt ceiling, a pathway toward a long-term truce appears blurred. But prior achievements in spending reductions could hold forth an avenue worthy of pursuit.
It is easy to forget, the American Affordable Health Care Act legislated over $700 billion dollar in reduced spending from Medicare an initiative that extended the programs projected solvency through 2024. For all the partisan sentiment by Democrats on protecting the benefits of our safety net program, the ACA's passed on purely a partisan vote successfully began a process for revision which the GOP continues to press as a means toward long-term deficit reduction.
It is easy to forget, the Budget Control Act of 2011 has put in place $1.5 trillion in immediate and decade-long spending cuts which the sequester will begin to implement in two short months if not amended by Congress and signed by the president. Amending the current terms of the sequester to expand spending cuts to again partially offset an additional increase in the debt ceiling is a not only a viable tactic but one which would allow the current Congress some political cover from the failures of their predecessors.
It is easy to forget there remain multiple out of the box to traditional proposals for reducing our deficit, from the recommendations of the Simpson–Bowles commission to repatriating off shore assets of American businesses to following the recommendations of the CMS Actuaries of increasing our FICA payroll contributions to Medicare for the first time since 1986.
The civil war that has been waged in Congress over our debt ceiling can be resolved. The nation has witnessed historic pieces of legislation from which a path forward toward long-term reform in our nation's allocation of spending could be based. As importantly, today both parties appear to agree on the fact that long-term sustainable economic growth is the most critical component necessary in any plan to address fiscal sustainability as a nation.
It is time to negotiate a truce in Congress. Congress must enact an honorable truce that will benefit the America people today and into our future. Congress has waged this civil war for over fifty years. Only Congress can end it.