Nobody likes the idea of raising the debt limit, but given the consequences of failing to do so -- a shutdown of government (including Social Security) and a massive financial crisis -- there's no question about whether it will happen. The only question, as Donald Marron, director of the Brookings Tax Policy Center, wrote on Tuesday, is when the debt limit will be raised and who will vote to raise. To help answer that question, Marron took a look at the debt limit votes in the Senate over the past decade and found that in years with one-party control of government, the responsibility fell entirely on the party in power, and in years with divided government, the responsibility was split fairly evenly.
As you can see, in 2002 and 2007, when Bush was President and Democrats controlled the Senate, both parties extended the debt limit on a bipartisan basis. Meanwhile in 2003, 2004, and 2006, years with one-party control led by Republicans, the GOP had virtually no Democratic help in raising the debt limit. Then in 2009 and 2010 the reverse situation played out and Democrats raised the limit without support from their GOP counterparts.
Despite the wild swings in the number of Democrats and Republicans voting for debt limit increases, each vote accomplished the same exact thing -- lifting the debt ceiling. The only thing that changed was the political calculation of who had to vote for it. Basically, each vote was a beltway political dance, and the members who got stuck voting for the debt limit increase depended entirely on political calculations, not substance.
You hear a lot about the fact that President Obama voted against raising the debt limit in 2006, but so did every other Senate Democrat. The key thing is that their votes were part of the dance I described above -- they didn't actually try to stop the debt limit increase. They could have filibustered it, but didn't. The consequences would have been too severe.
Now that Republicans control the House, it's essentially a mirror image of the situation with the Senate in 2002 and 2007, when Democrats controlled the Senate but Bush was president. With those years as a guide, what we will end up happening in 2011 is the same thing that happened in 2002 and 2007 -- we'll have a coalition of Democrats and Republicans who vote for the debt limit increase. Along the way, there will be kicking and screaming -- a fair number of Republicans will threaten to vote against the limit, and many of them will follow through -- but ultimately Boehner knows he needs to get most of his caucus on board with raising the debt limit. Combined with Democratic votes, the debt limit will be raised...and we can all sit around waiting another year to the same lame dance repeated all over again.