Clearing the Air on the Debt Limit Page: 7 of 15

Clearing the Air on the Debt Limit

Point of Clarification 3: Were "Clean" Debt Limit
Increases Once the Norm?
Some commentators have claimed that contentious debt limit episodes are a recent
phenomenon.27 Debt policy, however, has been a divisive issue since the beginning of American
government. Debt, by its nature, allows government to shift the fiscal burden of current
expenditures or lessen the burden of current taxes by transferring obligations to future
taxpayers.28 Shifting fiscal burdens into the future through debt management is a powerful and
potentially beneficial tool of fiscal policy, but can also become a means of avoiding fiscal
responsibility in the present. Debt policy discussions, therefore, often become contentious.
Since 1978, 27 of a total of 56 debt limit modifications were "clean"-meaning that a debt limit
measure was not linked to other provisions.29 That delineation, however, is imperfect. In some
cases a debt limit provision might have been attached to another measure that acted as a
convenient legislative vehicle for passage. In other cases, combining a debt limit modification
with other provisions may have resulted from a broad fiscal compromise among policymakers. In
addition, a debt limit modification enacted as a standalone measure could have resulted from a
policy compromise involving other issues. For instance, on February 15, 2014, a "clean" debt
limit increase (P.L. 113-83) was enacted. On the same afternoon another measure (PL. 113-82)
was enacted to reverse certain reductions in cost-of-living adjustments to working-age military
retiree pensions that had been included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 (BBA2013; P.L.
113-67). Although nothing formally linked the two measures, their passage in quick succession
may have reflected a fiscal compromise.
Debt limit measures have been informally or formally linked with other issues for many
decades.30 In 1939, when Congress was considering creating what became the modern debt limit,
Senator George Norris offered an amendment to allow the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to
use bonds to consummate purchases of some power plants. Once a separate TVA measure was
agreed to, the amendment to the debt limit measure (H.R. 5748) was withdrawn.3' In 1957,
Congress declined to raise the limit until the following February, in part to "compel more
economy of efficiency, better management of money and manpower in the defense program."32 In
the 1960s, debt limit debates provided a forum for those concerned about the expansion of federal
spending due to federal credit guarantees, new social insurance programs, and the escalation of
the Vietnam War.3 In the early 1970s, debt limit measures were embroiled in debates over
Journal, May 6, 1979, p. 8.
27 Simon Johnson, "The Debt Ceiling and Playing with Fire," New York Times, January 24, 2013. "In the past, the
potential for confusion around binding debt-ceiling limits was well understood. The debt ceiling was therefore raised
without too much fuss, and the party in opposition would typically object in principle but not put up a real fight."
28 Or alternatively, to future program beneficiaries affected by later spending reductions.
29 CRS Report R41814, Votes on Measures to Adjust the Statutory Debt Limit, 1978 to Present, by Justin Murray.
30 Linda K. Kowalcky and Lance T. LeLoup, "Congress and the Politics of Statutory Debt Limitation," Public
Administration Review, vol. 53, no. 1, January-February 1993, pp. 14-27.
31 Senate debate, Congressional Record, vol. 84, part 6 (June 1, 1939), pp. 6480, 6497-6501; part 9 (July 14, 1939), pp.
9141, 9164.
32 Rep. George H. Mahon, "Battle of the Budget in Defense Program," Extension of Remarks, Congressional Record,
vol. 103 (August 30, 1957), pp. H16805-H16809.
33 For example, a legislative history of temporary debt limit increases in 1967 runs 1,195 pages. See U.S. Congress,

Congressional Research Service


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Austin, D. Andrew & Thomas, Kenneth R. Clearing the Air on the Debt Limit, report, November 2, 2017; Washington D.C.. ( accessed May 19, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library,; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.

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