The History of Debt Ceiling Votes and Government Shutdowns

James Fallows writes:

there is no precedent for serious threats not to honor federal debt — as opposed to symbolic anti-Administration protest votes, which both parties have cast over the years. Nor for demanding the reversal of major legislation as a condition for routine government operations.

There’s never been a “serious threat” to refuse to increase the debt ceiling? Glenn Kessler’s already shredded that claim. As this paper documents, “the use of the debt ceiling vote as a vehicle for other legislative matters,” had become a “pattern” in the mid-1970s and 1980s. Indeed, as Kessler notes, “Congress has used the debt limit to repeal a key legislative priority of a president,” and liberal lions like Senators Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale sought to attach substantive legislation to a debt ceiling increase in the 1970s.

As for government shutdowns, as I noted here, there have been 17 since 1976, several of which were the result of disputes over substantive policy issues, ranging from limits on funding abortion to civil rights laws to reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. In Fallows defense, none of these involved demands for “reversal of major legislation,” but there were multiple efforts to attach measures that would overturn court decisions or change federal law.