Debt Ceiling

This information comes from the Office of Management and Budget’s Historical Tables of the US Government’s budget.  Just some basic information on the debt ceiling that might put the current political wrangling into greater context.  I will add the usual disclaimer that this is not my usual playground, so if anyone catches any mistakes please let me know.

Below is a quick graphic illustrating the points at which the debt ceiling has been raised since 1940.  These figures have not been adjusted for inflation.  The dots show the point at which the debt ceiling was raised, or a point at which a previous raise in the debt ceiling was reaffirmed/extended, while the line is intended to give the viewer a better ability to connect the dots (so to speak).

This second graph adjusted the previous figures for inflation (billions of 2009 dollars).

Of note—If my count is right, President Reagan increased the debt ceiling 18 times during his administration, from a starting point of $985 billion to $2.8 trillion.  The Clinton administration increased the debt limit 6 times from $4.3 trillion to $5.95 trillion.  The second Bush administration 7 times from $6.4 trillion to $11.3 trillion.  Of the data available (it only runs through 2009 here) the Obama administration increased the debt limit from $11.3 trillion to $12.1 trillion.

The real point at which the debt ceiling seems to take off is during the Reagan administration.  Prior to this point government seemed to keep closer tabs on the debt limit—although there are several dots on the graphics above prior to the Reagan administration, many of these cases are simply reaffirming or briefly extending previous raises to the debt limit.  Others can probably speak to this in greater detail, but this seems to make sense given that the Reagan administration was characterized by unusually high peacetime military spending.  The second point at which the debt ceiling rises seems to be during the second Bush presidency.  This also seems to make sense given the tremendous levels of spending for the war on terror.

Republicans have been campaigning on the fiscal irresponsibility of Democrats, but a cursory inspection of these charts suggest that recent Republican presidencies don’t have a great track record of keeping the debt ceiling down.  Earlier Republican presidencies (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford) seem to have been better at this.  That said, this does not take into account a host of other factors (international crises, which party controls Congress, divided government, etc.) so this is far from conclusive.  Still, if the argument is that the president is accountable for what happens on their watch then the fact remains that Republican presidents have presided over the greatest increases in the debt ceiling.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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