Mark mid-October on your calendars, folks. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced on Monday that the government's borrowing ability will max out at that point — meaning that the date is the opening bell of The Great Debt Ceiling Fight, Part Two.
This was not an unexpected announcement. Earlier this summer, the Department of the Treasury set the end of September as the likely point at which it would need an increase in its borrowing authority; the new announcement simply clarifies the timeframe. Nor have Congressional Republicans been waiting idly for the day to arrive. There are already a slew of policy proposals that may be introduced as potential points of negotiation by conservatives. (We outlined that list last weekend; it is lengthy.)
The last major fight over the debt ceiling, you may recall, was in 2011. It was the first time that the normally routine vote became contentious, as Republicans took advantage of the fact that the aesthetics of raising the government's ability to borrow money played into their anti-government-spending rhetoric. Again: The increased debt ceiling in now way curtails Congress' ability to spend money. Instead, it is the most that the government can borrow in order to pay the bills it has accrued. It's not a credit card limit, it's a limit on how much you might ask from the bank if you needed to pay off your credit cards.
The specter of another debt ceiling fight means that we get to return to another favorite game from 2011: "Who raised the debt ceiling more, Democrats or Republicans?" Here's how you play. If you are a Democrat, you point out that it is hypocritical for Republicans to object to raising the debt ceiling, because Congress raised it multiple times under Bush. (You can also point out that government grew under Bush for extra points.) If you are Republican, you point out that the debt ceiling has never been higher, and that Obama has raised it more than any preceding president.
And to make your points, both sides can use the same chart — the one below, which uses data from the Congressional Research Service.
The light gray bars are the new debt ceiling limits implemented on each date; the dark gray bars, the amount of the increase; the red line, the percentage increase over the preceding limit. The all-time largest percentage authorization was under President Bush, a 15.38 percent increase in 2003. The biggest jump was under Obama, an increase of 2.1 billion. Both sides win!
Until Congress returns to Capitol Hill, the outlines of the actual fight — an attempt to rollback Obamacare or to instantiate long-term sequestration cuts, for example — will probably remain hazy. But autumn is coming, and with it the debt ceiling fight. Unless, of course, Obama plays his trump card: ignoring the limit altogether. Which would create a much larger (and perhaps more interesting) fight entirely.
Photo: Obama asks that the roof be raised, sort of. (Reuters)