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Assessing Political Spin in the Debt Ceiling Fight

WASHINGTON — As the showdown over raising the nation’s debt ceiling drags on, lawmakers have spun up an array of deceptive statistics to blame their political opponents.

Republicans have misleadingly minimized their party’s own contributions and wrongly suggested that Democrats and President Biden are solely to blame. For their part, Democrats have overstated former President Donald J. Trump’s role in reaching the debt limit.

Here’s a fact check.

What Was Said

“If you look at the last four years, the Democrats have increased spending by 30 percent, $400 billion. We’re at 120 percent of G.D.P. We haven’t been in this place to debt since World War II.”
— Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, in a Jan. 29 appearance on CBS

This is misleading. It is true that discretionary spending — which is generally subject to congressional authorization each year, compared with mandatory spending levels set by other laws — increased by roughly 30 percent over the last four years. But that includes two years when Mr. Trump was president and Republicans controlled the Senate, so it is unreasonable to claim that Democrats were solely responsible for the spending increases incurred in those four years.

Democrats won a majority in the House in the 2018 midterm elections, but Republicans retained a majority in the Senate. Under a divided Congress and with Mr. Trump in the White House, discretionary spending totaled $1.3 trillion in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended in September 2019. That figure increased by $400 billion to an estimated $1.7 trillion in the 2022 fiscal year.

It is also worth noting that the 2019 fiscal year is the last year before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, spurring both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden as well as Congress to approve sweeping stimulus packages that added heavily to the government’s tab. In the 2020 fiscal year, under a Republican president and Senate, discretionary spending reached $1.6 trillion. The first Covid-19 stimulus bill, which Mr. McCarthy voted for and which was enacted in March 2020, included nearly $300 billion in discretionary spending through the 2022 fiscal year.

Mr. McCarthy’s claim that the national debt has exceeded gross domestic product by 20 percent for the first time in 80 years is also inaccurate. At the end of 2021, the national debt was at 121 percent of G.D.P. But that is actually a decrease from 2020, the last year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, when it had reached 127 percent.

Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling

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What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury securities, such as bills and savings bonds, to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.

The limit has been hit. What now? America hit its technical debt limit on Jan. 19. The Treasury Department will now begin using “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations. These measures are essentially fiscal accounting tools that curb certain government investments so that the bills continue to be paid. Those options could be exhausted by June.

What is at stake? Once the government exhausts its extraordinary measures and runs out of cash, it would be unable to issue new debt and pay its bills. The government could wind up defaulting on its debt if it is unable to make required payments to its bondholders. Such a scenario would be economically devastating and could plunge the globe into a financial crisis.

Can the government do anything to forestall disaster? There is no official playbook for what Washington can do. But options do exist. The Treasury could try to prioritize payments, such as paying bondholders first. If the United States does default on its debt, which would rattle the markets, the Federal Reserve could theoretically step in to buy some of those Treasury bonds.

Why is there a limit on U.S. borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so that the Treasury would not need to ask for permission each time it had to issue debt to pay bills.

What Was Said

“I’d just point out that the last guy who was president increased the national debt that was over 225 years and increased the entirety of that debt by 25 percent in four years.”
— Mr. Biden in a speech on Tuesday

This needs context. Mr. Biden is correct that a quarter of the national debt was accumulated over the four years Mr. Trump was in office. But the former president did not unilaterally add to that amount. In fact, two major factors for that increase were mandatory spending levels set long before Mr. Trump took office and several bipartisan spending bills that were passed to address the pandemic.

When Mr. Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017, the national debt stood at $19.9 trillion. When he left office on Jan. 20, 2021, it was $27.8 trillion — an increase of $7.9 trillion or about a quarter of today’s total debt of $31.5 trillion.

It is difficult to estimate just how much individual spending packages added to the national debt, since costs can be financed through tapping into revenue streams such as tax collection or through borrowing, adding to the debt and incurring interest. But looking at how much bills added to the deficit is a good proxy.

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which promotes deficit reduction, estimated that the deficit increased by $7.1 trillion under Mr. Trump over a 10-year period. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, another deficit hawk, estimated that the figure was $7.9 trillion including interest.

From the 2018 to 2021 fiscal years, the government collected $14.3 trillion in revenue, and spent $21.9 trillion, according to data compiled by the Congressional Budget Office. In that time, mandatory spending on programs such as Social Security and Medicare totaled $14.7 trillion alone. Discretionary spending totaled about $5.8 trillion. And interest payments on existing debt also accounted for $1.4 trillion of spending.

The C.B.O. estimated that Mr. Trump’s tax cuts — which passed in December 2017 with no Democrats in support — roughly added another $1 trillion to the federal deficit from 2018 to 2021, even after factoring in economic growth spurred by the tax cuts.

But other drivers of the deficit include several sweeping measures that had bipartisan approval. The first coronavirus stimulus package, which received near unanimous support in Congress, added $2 trillion to the deficit over the next two fiscal years. Three additional spending measures contending with Covid-19 and its economic ramifications added another $1.4 trillion.

What Was Said

“Joe Biden, for the last two years, went on a spending spree the likes of which our country has never seen, you know, $5 trillion in spending, a lot of it under the guise of Covid that had nothing to do with Covid.”
— Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana, at a Jan. 25 news conference

This is false. Spending under Mr. Biden has indeed added trillions to the deficit, but Mr. Scalise is wrong that this level of spending is unprecedented. Moreover, more than $2 trillion of that spending was enacted with Republican support.

The Peterson Foundation estimated that spending under Mr. Biden so far has added $4.1 trillion, while the ​​Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculated $4.8 trillion including interest, which a spokeswoman for Mr. Scalise cited. But that figure is still smaller than the amount added to the deficit under the previous administration of about $7 trillion to $8 trillion.

More on the Debt Limit

  • A Federal Showdown: The United States government is engaged in a high-stakes political battle over paying its debts — again. How did we get here?
  • Risks for the Economy: If Congress fails to increase the government’s borrowing limit in time, it could cause a shock to the economy and financial markets. Here are some of the possible ramifications.
  • A Fiscal Blame Game: As the Treasury Department takes “extraordinary measures” to avoid a default, both Republicans and Democrats are intent on painting their opponents as culpable.
  • Joe Manchin’s Role: The West Virginia Democrat, who faces re-election in 2024, has made it clear that he believe he can help forge a deal to raise the debt limit.

The most costly measure signed by Mr. Biden was the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package approved with only Democratic support and enacted in March 2021. The administration also added another $1.1 trillion through executive or agency actions, according to a breakdown by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. On the other hand, the Inflation Reduction Act — which also passed with no Republican support — reduced the deficit by $240 billion.

Other deficit drivers, however, received some level of Republican support: a $370 billion infrastructure measure, $280 billion to expand veterans benefits, $80 billion to expand semiconductor manufacturing and two spending bills totaling over $1 trillion.

Additionally, Mr. Scalise’s complaint that the $1.9 trillion stimulus package had little to do with the pandemic is an inaccurate Republican refrain that uses a narrow interpretation of pandemic-related funding. The biggest expenditures in the package were $1,400 stimulus checks and an extension of unemployment benefits, intended to help families and businesses harmed by the economic effects of the pandemic.

What Was Said

This is false. Even without the 2017 tax cuts, the United States would have eventually hit its debt ceiling.

In a statement to The New York Times, Mr. Whitehouse clarified that absent the tax cuts, “we would not be hitting the debt limit for some time” — not at all.

“If not for that tax scam and the lax enforcement of the law for superrich tax cheats over the last decade,” he added, “we would not even hit the current debt limit this year.”

Mr. Trump signed his tax cuts — under which most people received a tax cut, though the rich did receive proportionally more — into law in December 2017, while the debt stood around $20.5 trillion. In March 2019, the United States hit its debt limit of about $22 trillion. But the tax cuts were hardly the sole culprit, adding about $164 billion to the deficit in 2018.

The debt ceiling was last raised to $31.4 trillion in December 2021. In the four years after enactment, the tax cuts added just under $1 trillion to the debt, according to the C.B.O., representing a fraction of the $10 trillion of debt incurred in that time.

The absence of the 2017 tax cuts “would have delayed when every subsequent debt limit — including this one — had to be raised,” said Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But debt increased by almost $4 trillion in 2021 and 2022 alone. We’d have to raise it, regardless.”

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