What if Families Voted on Debt Like Washington?


When your household gets a credit card bill, do you:

(a) Convene the entire family to vote on paying it off
(b) Threaten not to pay unless you get special remote control privileges for the week
(c) Pay the damn bill

If you answered something other than (c), you should probably explore your financial and familial relationships with a professional, because something is wrong. But think about how the federal government deals with debt. Our legislators passes laws. They incur debt. They get the bill. And then, against all reason, they vote on it.

It's dumb, but often not dangerous. The votes are usually non-events because the majority party has numbers to raise the debt limit all by itself.* In the last four votes in the House, the majority party has voted 871-3 -- not a close call in site.

But in 2011, the GOP majority in the House has selected option (b), turning an obvious decision into a game of chicken. Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect puts together a handy guide to the GOP front-runners' position on the debt ceiling. It's a parade of masochistic brinkmanship, from Newt Gingrich ("I would not vote for the debt ceiling without a very, very significant change in the trajectory of spending") to Rick Santorum, who when asked if he would vote to raise the limit, answered "No."

Before you accuse me of picking on Republicans, let me be clear: This is not a partisan thing, it's a bipartisan thing. I mean, just look at the colors of the bars. It was silly when then-Sen. Obama voted against the debt ceiling in 2006, and it was silly when three members of the minority voted to pay off the family's credit card bill in four years. The silliness in endemic, but that doesn't make this round any less excusable. If we're going to exploit the debt ceiling vote, let's use this opportunity to kill the debt ceiling.


*Here's a fuller look at past debt ceiling votes, via Donald Marron

Marron elaborates:

When Republicans held both the Senate and the White House (2003, 2004, 2006), they provided virtually all the yea votes, while almost all Democrats voted no. When the Democrats were in power (2009, 2010), the roles reversed: the Democrats provided all but one of the yea votes, while Republicans voted no. Only when government was divided - with a Democratic Senate and a Republican president (2002, 2007) - has the vote to lift the debt limit been bipartisan.

The House has taken fewer stand-alone votes than the Senate (because of the so-called Gephardt rule, which the Republicans abolished last week), but they show the same pattern: the party in power votes to increase the debt limit:

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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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