James Kwak | Deficit Hawkoprite Watch

Sometime this spring, Congress is going to have to raise the debt ceiling or the federal government will face default. Republicans are going to demand many, many pounds of flesh in exchange, ranging from cuts in discretionary spending to rethinking of entitlement programs, which together could undermine the weak stimulative effect of the December tax cuts. Democrats are probably going to give in to at least some Republican demands for two reasons: politically, they fear that they would be held accountable for a default because the public still associates spending with Democrats, and they hold the White House; pragmatically, they are just not as crazy as the Republican right, and in most negotiations the crazy party gets a better deal.

Of course, this is insane. The deficit problem was created by Congress, through its many votes to increase spending and decrease revenues (otherwise known as taxes). As James Hamilton put it:

“One of the peculiar embarrassments of the American political process is the fact that Congress votes separately on the deficit and debt, as if they were two different decisions. . . .

“A politician who votes for the spending and tax measures that produced the deficit but against a debt ceiling consistent with these is deliberately wasting taxpayer dollars for no purpose other than to grandstand before voters as a ‘fiscal conservative’. Anyone playing such a game has complete contempt for the intelligence of their constituents.”

I know this is a bit early, but I wanted to get some facts out there in advance of the debate. I picked five major bills in the past decade that have significantly increased the national debt: the 2001 tax cut, the 2003 tax cut, the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, the 2009 stimulus, and the 2010 tax cut. (I left out the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars because it’s hard to pin down Congressional votes specifically authorizing their costs, in part because the famous Senate vote wasn’t actually a vote to go to war, in part because of the peculiar way the costs of the wars were budgeted.)

Then, for each of those bills, I looked up the CBO budget impact estimate made at the time. (Sources are at the bottom of this post.) Their costs, as projected at the time (and hence as knowable by members of Congress), were as follows. The first number is the ten-year cost; the number in parentheses is the portion of that cost through fiscal year 2011. Numbers are in billions.

  • 2001 tax cut: $1,346 ($1,346)
  • 2003 tax cut: $350 ($354 — the cut has a tiny deficit-reducing impact in its final years)
  • Medicare Part D: $395 ($271). Note that I am not including the fact that the cost of this bill was almost immediately reestimated after it passed to be significantly higher, since that was not knowable to members of Congress when they voted.
  • 2009 stimulus: $838 ($793)
  • 2010 tax cut: $858 ($374)

That’s a total of $3.8 trillion — $3.1 trillion of it hitting the national debt by this year, and hence contributing directly to the need to raise the debt ceiling.

Then I looked up how current senators voted on these bills, whether they were in the Senate or the House at the time. For each senator, I added up how much of the current (2011) debt he could have voted for, and how many he did vote for. So, for example, Daniel Akaka (D-HI) was in the Senate for all five votes, so he was on the floor for $3.1 trillion in budget-busting bills; he voted for the last two, so he voted for $1.2 trillion, or 37 percent of what he could have voted for.

The results are predictable, but I still think worthy of noting, especially with all of the grandstanding that is going to happen.

Overall, current Democratic senators (including Sanders and Lieberman) had the opportunity to vote on $127 trillion of additional debt, and voted for $64 trillion, or 50 percent; current Republican senators had the opportunity to vote on $104 trillion of debt and voted for $70 trillion, or 67 percent.

The difference would have been greater except for trends in the composition of the Senate. Of current senators, the proportion in each party voting for each bill is as follows:

  • 2001 tax cut: Democrats 18%, Republicans 93%
  • 2003 tax cut: D 3%, R 94%
  • Medicare Part D: D 17%, R 88%
  • 2009 stimulus: D 100%, R 5%
  • 2010 tax cut: D 77%, R 87%

So the typical Democratic vote pattern is N-N-N-Y-Y (I counted “present” and not voting as no votes — there were very few of these, anyway), which would mean voting for 37 percent of the total debt produced by these bills (just like Daniel Akaka). In fact, thirty-four Democrats were able to vote on all five bills, and twenty of them voted that way.

The typical Republican vote pattern is Y-Y-Y-N-Y, which means voting for 75 percent of the total debt. And, of the twenty-seven Republicans around for all five bills, eighteen of them voted that way.

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The reason that the Republican-Democratic “debt responsibility” percentages are 67-50 instead of 75-37 is that not all senators have been in Congress for the past decade, and most of the ones who have only been there for a few years are Democrats. So there are many Democrats who were only in Congress for the last two votes, on which they typically voted Y-Y (100%), and a few Republicans who were only there for the last two votes, on which they typically voted N-Y (32%). So the facts that the Democrats’ budget-busting bills came later, and that I’m only looking at current senators, make the Democrats seem more profligate than their party has been as a whole, and vice-versa for Republicans.

The bottom line: As a party, the Republicans who will be railing against fiscal irresponsibility and threatening to block a raise in the debt limit are the irresponsible ones themselves who created the need to raise that debt limit. The Democrats can claim to be somewhat less irresponsible; more to the point, perhaps, insofar as they did vote to raise the debt, at least their current behavior (assuming that most support the administration and vote to raise the debt limit) is at least consistent with their past votes.

Of course, it’s more fun looking at an individual level. And the only people who can claim not to be responsible for the national debt — at least not via any of these five bills — are the newly elected members (except Rob Portman and Pat Toomey, who voted down the line to increase the debt as Congressmen) and Tom Coburn, who joined the Senate in 2005 and voted against both the stimulus and the 2010 tax cut.

By contrast, Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl each voted for $2.3 trillion of debt (75 percent), yet will somehow try to argue that the need to raise the debt ceiling is not their fault.

On the flip side, the only people who voted for all $3.1 trillion of debt are Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME), generally considered moderates. (Liberals think Nelson is a closet Republican, and conservatives think Collins is a closet Democrat.) Following Nelson and Collins, at $2.8 trillion, are Max Baucus (D-MT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) — also generally considered centrists. One inference you could draw is that bipartisan centrists are the last thing we need, since they vote for both tax cuts and spending increases. Of course, the December tax cut is Exhibit A in the problem with bipartisan compromise, at least from the perspective of the deficit.

Finally, I realize that Hamilton’s post was actually a quotation from a post he wrote in 2006, when the political situation was reversed; the Bush administration was trying to raise the debt ceiling so the government could continue functioning, and the Democrats voted against it. But I don’t think that it’s fair to say the Democrats then were the same as the Republicans today.

There are two different issues here. One is the political issue of trying to score points by blocking an increase in the debt ceiling that is necessary to avoid chaos in the global economy. That is irresponsible today, and it was irresponsible then, I agree.

The other is the substantive issue of whether, in fact, you created the national debt in the first place and should behave accordingly. Hamilton tried to nail the Democrats in 2006 by pointing out that they voted to spend $3 billion on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program on the same day that they voted against an increase in the debt ceiling. But that’s a pretty weak argument when the Democrats overwhelmingly voted against the 2001 tax cut, the 2003 tax cut, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, with a total ten-year cost of $2.1 trillion — seven hundred times as much as they spent on the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. I don’t think you can demand that someone vote against every spending increase and every tax cut to avoid being called a hypocrite. And in 2006, the Democrats at least could claim that they were not responsible for the recent ballooning of the national debt. The Republicans can make no such claim today (except for Tom Coburn, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and a few other newbies).

Anyway, here’s a spreadsheet with all the data if you’re interested. Feel free to reuse.


Since the Senate generally votes on a bill multiple times, it is not always clear which is the most important vote. Usually there is at least one vote to pass the bill in the first place and another to pass the version that comes out of conference committee. This being the Senate, however, sometimes the cloture votes are the ones where the bill actually stands a chance of passing. I’ve indicated which vote I used below. Using different votes might yield slightly different results, but only slightly since the votes don’t move around that much.

2001 tax cut: CBO estimateSenate vote (to approve conference report)
2003 tax cut: CBO estimateSenate vote (to approve conference report — this was a 50-50 vote that was decided by Vice President Cheney)
Medicare prescription drug benefit: CBO estimateSenate vote (a procedural motion that required sixty votes and only got sixty-one)
2009 stimulus: CBO estimateSenate vote (to approve conference report)
2010 tax cut: CBO estimateSenate vote (the final vote in the Senate)