The debt ceiling has been an evolving creature since 1917 and started life as something of a thought exercise. In handing over some of their spending power (a Legislative Branch function) to the Treasure (an Executive Branch department), long dead Members of Congress thought that if their future selves had to have their votes counted in order for the U.S. Government to continue taking on large tranches of debt, maybe it would restrain them from profligate borrowing. Some of the more wild-eyed optimists among them, I’m sure, thought that it might even usher in a new day of not constantly spending more money than the federal government takes in.
For most of the last hundred years, though, raising the debt ceiling became just a normal part of doing business. No serious person ever considered putting the United States Government in a position where it would default on its lawfully begotten debts. That’s changed in the last 20-30 years, of course. I suspect there’s now more than a few Members of Congress who would cheer on a default and smile for the cameras while they watched the resulting economic chaos.
Republican controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Democratic controlled Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Divided Congresses have raised the debt ceiling. Presidents of both parties have presided over these increases while gnashing their teeth about runaway spending.
Can we please, then, just stop pretending that the debt ceiling is anything more than a bomb we’ve allowed to grow in the heart of the government? With the total federal debt now standing at $31 trillion dollars, let us admit that the debt ceiling is a work of fiction that has don’t nothing to stand between us and racking up unimaginable levels of indebtedness. The only thing it’s really done is create a mechanism by which it’s possible to decimate the global economy if the hands of the incompetents and ideologues now serving in Congress. Better that this failed experiment in limiting federal spending be put on the ash heap of history than allowing it to linger around like some kind of damned suicide pact.