It would seem that the Republicans in the United States have been largely de-fanged when it comes to using the debt ceiling as a political lever. Yesterday Republicans agreed to a ‘clean’ debt ceiling vote, meaning that there were no poison pills for Democrats to swallow, and that political fighting and decisions would have to happen without the threat of a total global economic meltdown.
But the debt ceiling need not exist at all. As you may know, there aren’t any other major economies that have “debt ceilings” – instead the debt ceiling was a by-product of America’s involvement in the First World War, when Congress (the group authorized to allow for debt) needed to give the treasury room to borrow. The solution was the Debt Ceiling that we know today.
But the debt ceiling isn’t helpful and doesn’t do any of the things that people intend it to do. For instance, as a way of stopping or limiting borrowing it doesn’t work. Most of what the treasury is paying goes out automatically, like paycheques and benefits. Stopping borrowing doesn’t eliminate the debt obligation, it just puts you in default.
As a method to improve the financial health of the United States its hard to see how breaching the debt ceiling would improve the American economy. Far more likely it would tank the US and much of the global markets.
As a tool to fight for social change it is dangerous and undemocratic. The financial responsibilities of the United States sit on both party’s shoulders, not just one.
Lastly, the debt ceiling has prevented more useful conversations about how to help the American economy where both parties had something to offer. Have a look at this video by historian Niall Ferguson from 2011. The economy has improved since then and the economic outlook is better than before, but it is telling that the debt ceiling offers us little and distracts people from more useful political solutions.
It’s time to get rid of the debt ceiling.