Debt ceiling negotiators reach a deal: 5 essential reads about the tentative accord, brinkmanship and the danger of default
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on May 27, 2023, agreed in principle to a tentative deal that would raise the debt ceiling while capping some federal spending at current levels.
The accord, if approved by both houses of Congress, would avert an unprecedented default that threatens to derail the economy and put hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work. Negotiators agreed to lift the ceiling for two years – past the 2024 presidential election – while putting a temporary cap on most nondefense spending at 2023 levels. It would also reduce planned funding for the IRS, impose new work requirements on some people who receive benefits from the federal program known as SNAP and claw back billions of unspent funds from pandemic relief programs.
The Conversation has been covering the debt ceiling drama since January, when Republicans took over the House, raising fears that brinkmanship would lead to an economic catastrophe. Here are five articles from our archive to help you make sense of a couple key aspects of the tentative deal and provide context on the debt ceiling fight.
1. What is the debt ceiling
First some basics. The debt ceiling was established by the U.S. Congress in 1917. It limits the total national debt by setting out a maximum amount that the government can borrow.
Steven Pressman, an economist at The New School, explained the original aim was “to let then-President Woodrow Wilson spend the money he deemed necessary to fight World War I without waiting for often-absent lawmakers to act. Congress, however, did not want to write the president a blank check, so it limited borrowing to US$11.5 billion and required legislation for any increase.”
Since then, the debt ceiling has been increased dozens of times. It currently stands at $31.4 trillion – a figure reached in January. The Treasury has taken “extraordinary measures” to enable the government to keep borrowing without breaching the ceiling. Such measures, however, can only be temporary – meaning at one point Congress will have to act to lift the ceiling or default on its debt obligations, which is expected to happen by June 5, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, if the deal isn’t approved in time.
2. The trouble with work requirements
One of the biggest sticking points toward the end of negotiations was work requirements for recipients of government aid. The tentative deal would raise the age for existing work requirements from 49 to 54 years on able-bodied adults who have no children. This is less than what Republicans had earlier sought. There are exceptions for veterans and the homeless.
But if the goal is to help people find jobs and make more money, work requirements don’t actually do the job, wrote Kelsey Pukelis, a doctoral student in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School who has studied the issue. Rather, they make it much harder for people who need food aid to get it.
“Our findings do suggest that work requirements restrain federal spending by reducing the number of people getting SNAP benefits,” she explained. “But our work also indicates that in today’s context, these savings would be at the expense of already vulnerable people facing additional economic hardship at a time when a new recession could be around the corner.”
3. IRS funding takes a hit
The deal also takes aim at a big boost in spending Congress gave the Internal Revenue Service beginning in 2022 to crack down on tax cheats and upgrade its software. Democrats agreed to a Republican demand to cut the extra IRS funding from $80 billion to $70 billion.
Back in August 2022, Nirupama Rao, an economist at the University of Michigan, explained why Democrats included all that funding in their Inflation Reduction Act and how it would help the IRS collect more tax revenue, since the agency does not fully collect all the taxes that are owed.
“The main target of this spending is the so-called tax gap, which is currently estimated at about $600 billion a year,” she wrote. “While an $80 billion investment that returns $204 billion already sounds pretty impressive, it may be possible that it’s a conservative estimate.”
4. The hard road to compromise
It took a long time for Republicans and Democrats to get the current agreement.
Yellen warned in January that the government was about to hit the debt limit and would be unable to pay all its bills by May or June. McCarthy and House Republicans, who hold a razor-thin majority, appeared unwilling to raise the debt ceiling unless they could extract deep spending cuts. Meanwhile, Biden refused to negotiate, insisting on a clean debt ceiling bill. Both of those positions were dropped during negotiations.
Why did it take so long for them to reach a compromise?
Blame political trends that have been accelerating for decades, explained Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a specialist in partisan conflict and the lack of bipartisan agreement in American politics at Northwestern University. Many Republicans come from very safe districts, which means their primary against other conservatives is more important than the general election. This makes it more important to stand firm and fight until the bitter end.
“So you now have many Republicans who are more willing to fight quite hard against the Democrats because they don’t want to give a win to Biden,” she wrote. “Democrats are also resistant to compromising, both because they don’t want to gut programs that they put in place and also because they don’t want to make this look like a win for Republicans, who were able to play chicken and get what they wanted.”
5. Latest in a long line of fiscal crises
This was hardly the first fiscal crisis the U.S. government has faced. In fact, there have been many – including 22 government shutdowns since just 1976.
Raymond Scheppach, a professor of public policy at University of Virginia, offered a brief history of recent crises and the damage they’ve caused – and why a default would be far more consequential than past crises.
“While these were very disruptive and damaged the economy and employment, they pale in comparison to the potential effects of failing to lift the debt ceiling, which could be catastrophic,” he wrote. “It could bring down the entire international financial system. This in turn could devastate the world gross domestic product and create mass unemployment.”
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives. Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published on May 2, 2023.