Over the next three weeks, Congress will likely to pass proposals to fund the government and increase its borrowing ability. It seems like these moments of tension happen a lot recently — but it has been much more common in the recent past.
First, some definitions.
Continuing resolution. In an ideal scenario, Congress passes an annual budget that is signed into law by the president. If Congress can't agree on such a budget, there are two choices. One is to shut down the government. This is not preferable. The second is to pass a resolution continuing the existing budget allocations. That's what the House passed last week, a resolution funding the government at existing levels, but cutting funding for Obamacare-related programs.
Debt ceiling increase Once Congress passes a budget (or extends one), government agencies start spending money. Usually, the budget allows agencies to spend more than the government takes in, meaning that the government runs at a deficit. In order to pay the bills Congress authorizes, the Treasury Department is allowed to borrow money. The debt ceiling is the most amount the government can borrow; if it is reached, the ceiling must be raised or bills stop being paid. (Here's a good video about it.)
While it seems like these sorts of budget crises come up a lot, we've actually seen them occur at about the normal rate. We looked at data since 1975 to evaluate the frequency with which these events have occurred. Here's what those look like, by year.
Of course, the debate in 2011 and the one currently occurring does so with a massive amount of media scrutiny. When Congress was debating continuing resolutions in 2003 — a year in which such increases occurred eight times — the press mentioned the issue 1,100 times, according to a search of media database Nexis. Since January, it has come up more than 3,000. The sources of news are different now, but the scale and the immediacy of the current discussion makes this moment seem more uncommon than it is.
It is, however unusual in tone. The bizarre set of demands offered by Republicans appears to be without precedent, as is the attempt to eradicate laws passed years ago. The fury of the fight is uncommon, even if the fact that it is happening isn't.
But even that vituperativeness has been matched. Below is a chart of each continuing resolution and debt ceiling increase since 1975. On some days, multiple resolutions or increases took place. Take January 6, 1996. On that day, Clinton signed three such resolutions, funding parts of government in small increments and bringing to an end the brief shutdown that began the prior month. It serves as a good reminder: things have been much, much worse.