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Don’t worry. Congress will increase the federal debt ceiling, our government won’t shut down and we’ll avoid economic calamity. Least that’s my hope. Why? Because the debt ceiling doesn’t matter.

Let me explain.

Budgeting is where we guess at how much income we’ll have, then plan (budget) on what we’ll spend.

When spending exceeds income, we need cash to pay bills. So, we either take cash from savings or borrow money. The debt ceiling, then, is our self-imposed limit on how much we will borrow. That’s why it doesn’t matter. It’s self-imposed, and that’s the simple explanation.

The Government Accountability Office says, “the debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.”

Prior to 1917, we didn’t have a debt ceiling. Congress borrowed as needed. Then, to control spending, Congress capped the amount of bonds we could issue at a ceiling of $15 billion. In 1939 and 1941, Congress added almost all government debt under this debt ceiling cap.

That didn’t control spending, however. Congress just kept increasing the cap.

Depending on who is counting, the U.S. has raised the debt ceiling (in some form or other) about 90 times, including 17 times under Ronald Reagan, four times under George H.W. Bush, four times under Bill Clinton, seven times under George W. Bush, seven times under Barack Obama and twice under Donald Trump. The debt ceiling has never been reduced, even though the actual public debt has gone up and down.

In 1995, the debt ceiling debate between President Clinton and the Republican Congress resulted in the federal government shutting down twice. Polling generally showed that most blamed congressional Republicans.

More recently, President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall and Democrats’ resistance to do so resulted in the longest government shutdown. According to the Chicago Tribune, 60% blamed Trump with 65% calling the shutdown a major problem.

OK, who’s responsible for running up debt so the ceiling must be raised now?

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Last Monday, Democrats said it was Trump’s fault, to cover expenses created under him and meet “obligations the government has already made, like the bipartisan emergency COVID relief legislation from December.”

Then, on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Cailif., told Fox News “The past debt ceiling [increases] paid for everything in the Trump administration.”

Neither is correct. Trump signed legislation that added trillions to the national debt, but so did President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. And just because the debt ceiling was raised to accommodate borrowing didn’t mean the expenditures were “paid for.”

Marc Goldwein, senior vice president for the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said, “Some of Trump’s legislation continues to add to the U.S. deficit. But the need to increase the debt ceiling now is not primarily due to legislation passed under Trump. [A] significant portion of the deficit is from the American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law.”

However, last Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tweeted, “We all agree America must not default. We have a Democratic President, House and Senate. They have decided to operate on a partisan basis. So, Democrats should not play Russian roulette with our economy. They have an obligation to raise the debt ceiling and they will do it.”

Here’s the thing.

We, the American people, elected you, congressional Republicans and Democrats, to take care of such things.

If you shut down the government, then we’ll blame someone, probably you. Republicans shouldn’t just take their toys and go home. They must engage. And Democrats must own their actions, as well.

And both must focus on the problem, and it’s not in raising the debt ceiling or pointing fingers of blame. It’s income and spending that are the issue.

Focus on the problem, not the politics.

So, do your job, and you’ll get to keep it.

Tom Crouser is a business consultant living in Mink Shoals. Reach him at tom@crouser.com and follow @TomCrouser on Twitter. Also connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.

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