Is the Debt Ceiling the Most Cynical Vote in Congress?

The debt ceiling vote has been called a "tax on the majority." Here's why.

These two graphs show how the Senate and the House have voted on stand-alone debt limit measures over the past decade (via Donald Marron at the TaxVox blog) -- first Senate, then House.

Why do the bars look so monochrome? Because every year besides 2002 and 2007 (divided government), the party in power has had to carry the burden of raising the debt ceiling alone. When Republicans are in power, Democrats hold out to kvetch about taxes and deficits. When Democrats are in power, Republicans hold out to kvetch about spending and deficits.


The debt ceiling rule allegedly exists to give lawmakers pause about how much they're charging to the federal credit card. It's like a federal credit card statement. Is that so unreasonable?

I think this graph conclusively proves: Yes. The debt ceiling vote is grandstanding masquerading as procedure. It doesn't give lawmakers with power pause; instead, it gives lawmakers without power a platform to rant about deficits before letting the other party bear the burden of responsible governance. Then elections happen, the parties switch roles, and the roll calls flip.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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