Biden’s Debt Ceiling Gaffe?

The President flubbed a softball question. Oh noes!

Jonathan Chait obscures a good point with absurd hyperbole in “Biden Debt-Ceiling Gaffe Could Destroy His Presidency.”

Last week, a reporter asked President Biden if he would support a repeal of the debt ceiling. “A permanent repeal of the debt ceiling? … Just say we don’t have a debt limit?” he asked with a laugh, as if the notion were fantastical. “No. That’d be irresponsible.”

The reality is in fact just the opposite. Repealing the debt ceiling, or raising it to a level at which it is practically repealed, is the responsible course of action. Leaving the debt ceiling in place invites political chaos and creates the risk of a global economic meltdown with absolutely no benefit whatsoever. Biden’s dismissive comment was the most irresponsible act of his entire presidency.

The Washington Post reports that Biden uttered this response extemporaneously, “surprising some of his own aides, according to two people who have been in communication with senior administration officials and spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private conversations.” In so doing, he blundered into a crisis that he has a short period of time to resolve, and if he fails, it could very well destroy his administration.

This is followed by a lot of hand-wringing about how stupid the debt limit is and how irresponsible Republicans have been in using it as a weapon. I suspect most OTB readers will need little persuasion on either count.

The thing is, sure, this was a gaffe. Biden should have been prepared to pounce on the question and declare that it’s high past time to abolish the silly device. The way to lower the debt is some combination of spending less and collecting more revenue.

At the same time, Chait’s presumption that, if only Biden had said the right thing, the debt ceiling would magically go away is, frankly, bizarre. Presumably, Democrats could ram it through in the House. But there’s no way in hell Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would both go for it, so it’s not getting through the Senate.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    This is truly an inside the beltway controversy. I’m a pretty careful observer of things DC and wasn’t aware of Biden’s “gaffe” till I saw the headline for Chait’s article. We may deserve the government that we get, but we’re certainly not getting the press that we need.

  2. Andy says:

    Democrats have repeatedly voted against raising the debt ceiling, including then-Senator Biden.

    Historically the parties have not wanted to vote for debt ceiling increases by themselves on a party-line vote because the optics look bad to a public that doesn’t understand the convoluted nature of how federal debt works. So the party that isn’t in control of the agenda in Congress threatens to vote against a debt ceiling increase as a negotiating tactic to get concessions in other areas. This has been a regular occurrence since at least the 1970’s. And then a deal is worked out the measure passes.

    These battles have gotten more contentious, and a more serious game of chicken as partisanship has increased, but the fundamental dynamic remains the same. And temporary suspensions have become more common.

    Presumably, Democrats could ram it through in the House. But there’s no way in hell Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema would both go for it, so it’s not getting through the Senate.

    Democrats have had the opportunity to do this in the past on a party-line basis at several points and opted not to. They haven’t done it because it would carry a political cost with the public, and hand Republicans a talking point. Has something changed? Maybe, but I don’t think so. As recently as 2018 they were using the debt ceiling tactic to try to get the Dream Act passed.

    Anyway, on the merits, I do think the debt ceiling should be eliminated, and not with a gimmick like minting a special coin. But it seems that most in Congress still want to use it for political games and tactical leverage as they’ve done for decades now.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    My personal feeling is that Train v. City of New York made the debt ceiling unconstitutional: the President can’t refuse to disburse funds appropriate by congress and under the 14th amendment can’t invalidate debt, so there’s simply no way for the debt limit to legally be enforced.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: But this isn’t a matter of the Executive circumventing Congressional authority by refusing to disburse but rather of a law prohibiting borrowing beyond the amount authorized by Congress. I think a better argument is the Public Debt Clause of the 14th Amendment.

  5. Michael Cain says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yeah, the three-pronged dilemma that got coverage while Obama was in office. Federal law requires the executive to spend the amounts appropriated (with small exceptions), does not allow the executive to change revenue streams (with small exceptions), and sets a limit on executive borrowing. Obviously, there can be times when the executive branch must violate one of the three. People suggest work-arounds, like the trillion-dollar platinum coin. What we’re really suffering, though, is a situation that has become too common: Congress will not do its job, and the media refuses to cover the problem in the context of “Congress is not doing its job.” They blame the president.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    After four decades of handwringing about “cutting waste, fraud, and abuse” from the federal budget–which has only at best yielded fractions of percents of the actual outlay even when tried*–we have to conclude that “We teh Peepul” want more stuff from gubmint than we are willing to pay for. Congress critters may be total douchecanoes, but they are not douchecanoes with no survival instincts, so they continue to give us stuff that no one has any intention of ever paying for. It all works out though. We get stuff with the benefit of periodic kabuki theater about the debt ceiling, the poor keep getting poorer, the tent cities in our major cities keep getting larger, and higher percentages of students try to disguise the fact that they live in their parent’s care (with their parents, of course) from their classmates. Why would we want to change THIS?

  7. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I neglected to include my * comment. Here goes:

    *And IIRC, the last time we let the Party of former Speaker Ryan take a shot at cutting waste, fraud, and abuse, the best they could come up with was “Defund Big Bird!!!” if I recall correctly.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    But this isn’t a matter of the Executive circumventing Congressional authority by refusing to disburse but rather of a law prohibiting borrowing beyond the amount authorized by Congress.

    The problem is what happens when the Congress both orders the President to spend money via an appropriations bill and orders the President not to spend the same money via a debt ceiling bill? Basic statutory construction would suggest that the appropriations bill, being both more recent and more specific, wins and the President is required to disburse the funds regardless of what the debt ceiling is.