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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 02/14/2011

The polarization of the debt ceiling in one graph

By Ezra Klein

This is a nice chart from the New York Times (using data Donald Marron posted here) showing that our system of government has broken down. But the thing it's supposed to be showing is how votes on raising the debt limit usually play out:

12debt-graphic-popup-v2.gif

Confused? The top two graphs show how Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and the House have voted when the time has come to raise the debt ceiling. The final checkerbox shows who was controlling which branch of government during those votes. The takeaway is that when Republicans are in charge, they vote to raise the debt ceiling. When Democrats are in charge, they vote to raise the debt ceiling. But when either party is in the minority, they suddenly discover a principled and widespread opposition to borrowing more money.

So far, this hasn't led to an actual default. Maybe it never will. But I wouldn't bet a lot of money that this sort of brinksmanship, when combined with a polarized media and increasingly powerful grass-roots groups demanding obedience on big votes, won't eventually lead to some sort of catastrophe. And even if it doesn't, the opportunism and mindless partisanship on display in these votes is shameful.

By Ezra Klein  | February 14, 2011; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Comments

*raises hand*

Um. Why don't we just remove the debt ceiling?

Posted by: Diacritic | February 14, 2011 10:53 AM | Report abuse

This underscores the need for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, which would eliminate both party's ability to borrow large sums and send the bill to the nation's children.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 14, 2011 11:01 AM | Report abuse

This underscores the need for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, which would eliminate both party's ability to borrow large sums and send the bill to the nation's children.

Posted by: rmgregory | February 14, 2011 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it interesting how this started in 2002 when George W. Bush was President?

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 14, 2011 11:17 AM | Report abuse

That's a nice pattern you show in the graphs Ezra, but don't you think a little context is required here? For instance, the amount of debt accrued by the time of those votes to raise the ceiling and why they chose to do so.

But most important of all is what happened to that debt under each President's watch since Reagan:
1. Republicans promised to reduce the size of govt and its spending but did the exact opposite (Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush Jr.).
2. Democrats cut spending to reduce the debt (Clinton created the only surplus that was projected to actually ELIMINATE the debt by 2007).

The beauty of this system is that the GOP can reap the benefits of all that spending and then complain about the debt created once a Democratic president is in office and all the while pretend that the Dems are the ones with the spending problem.

Even worse is the fact that Greenspan and Clinton increased the payroll tax to cover the shortfall in Social Security revenue - a burden that fell almost entirely on the middle class, the surplus which was then used by both parties for more spending and tax cuts instead of savings.

Now the middle class is going to made to sacrifice even more through spending cuts while the rich get to pay even less in taxes. And yet, there's nary a peep from anyone *sigh*.

Posted by: kiweagle | February 14, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

"But most important of all is what happened to that debt under each President's watch since Reagan:
"

Have you been in a coma since January 2009?

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 14, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

when communist china has the second largest economy in the world, something is seriously wrong. the debt ceiling will have to be raised forever and the FED will print this country into the stoneage.

http://nakedempire.wordpress.com/

Posted by: nakedempire | February 14, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse

@krazen1211 - If you are referring to the bailouts and the stimulus (both of which started under Bush), you might want to recall that they were needed for the economic recovery - did I mention that unemployment is now down to 9%?

It's also pretty rich to complain about the debt now after the GOP added $5 trillion to it and did NOTHING to decrease it. In fact, they cut taxes and increased spending in the middle of 2 wars.

But NOW the GOP wants to cut spending, what awfully convenient timing...

Posted by: kiweagle | February 14, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

"@krazen1211 - If you are referring to the bailouts and the stimulus (both of which started under Bush), you might want to recall that they were needed for the economic recovery - did I mention that unemployment is now down to 9%?"


It's really rich make excuses when the facts don't line up with your fictional narrative.

Obama has already added more debt than either of George W. Bush's terms.

Posted by: krazen1211 | February 14, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't call this "broken," I'd call it politics. Not that politics isn't shameful, but, to me, broken means the vote fails. In these cases, the vote passed, and the debt ceiling was raised. That's an ugly sausage factory, but it's not a broken sausage factory.

By definition, unless the minority really pushes it, the majority has enough votes. Therefore, the minority knows its votes will not force the bill to fail, and it can take a (pandering) "stand" against the "deficit spending" majority.

But, if for whatever reason, minority votes were required, I'd bet they'd be there.

Posted by: dpurp | February 14, 2011 12:34 PM | Report abuse

"did I mention that unemployment is now down to 9%"

Pop the Champagne bottles! Maybe, in just a few years time, we'll have the red hot unemployment numbers that Bush enjoyed circa June 2003 that won Bush so much praise from Paul Krugman.

Over the past year, unemployment fell from 9.7% to 9.0%. Over the same time period, the employment to population ratio increased from 58.5% to er... wait, it fell, to 58.4%. This is a recovery you can believe in.

A few stats, Jan10 to Jan11:

Labor Force: -167,000 (-14k/mo)
Employment: +812,000 (+68k/mo)
Civilian Population: +1,872,000 (+156k/mo)
Not in Labor Force: + 2,039,000 (+170k/mo)

Unemployment in Jan11 had the growth in the civilian population made it into the labor force: 10.24%.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.a.htm

Another fun fact: remember the awful economy from Jun2002-Jun2003? The BLS recorded 1,375,000 net jobs created via the household survey over that time period.

Posted by: justin84 | February 14, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

@justin84 - Those are nice stats, except for the really inconvenient fact that Obama surpassed the net number of jobs created under Bush's 8 years during his first year in office. D'oh!

The track record for the economy under Bush, the GOP-led House and Senate is the worst under any president since Carter, and he had an oil-crisis to deal with.

Posted by: kiweagle | February 14, 2011 7:16 PM | Report abuse

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