When Debt-Ceiling Politics Was Bipartisan

tags: debt ceiling



Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.

President Barack Obama is hardly the first president forced to play debt-ceiling politics.

The debt ceiling is a cap on the amount of total debt the U.S. government can incur to pay the country’s bills. Before the 20th century, there was no ceiling on the total amount of debt. Instead, Congress set limits on the amount of debt the Treasury could borrow for discrete purposes: a war or a public-works project. Congress also set limits on the kinds of debt the Treasury could issue for any given purpose (for example, short-term borrowing versus long-term bonds).

Whenever the Treasury exceeded the statutory limit for borrowing connected to specific spending, Congress had to vote to raise the limit. As government grew and became more complicated, the bond issues multiplied, and the votes became more frequent and nettlesome. The ad-hoc approach to debt was, in many people’s eyes, becoming impractical....



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