President Barack Obama in a speech to business leaders Wednesday said Republican efforts to attach non-budget items to an increase in the nation’s debt limit are unprecedented.
“You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt being used to extort a president or a governing party and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and nothing to do with the debt,” President Obama said.
He is referring specifically to Republican attempts to attach a delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act to an increase in the debt ceiling.
The president later explained Thursday that raising the debt ceiling doesn’t actually increase the debt.
“[R]aising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt,” President Obama said. “It does not somehow promote profligacy. All it does is it says you got to pay the bills that you’ve already racked up, Congress.”
“It’s a basic function of making sure that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved,” he added.
Technically, he’s right: the action of raising the limit does not directly add to the debt — it just makes it easier.
But let’s back up for a second.
President Obama’s claim that members of Congress have “never” attached non-budget items to the debt ceiling negotiations is flat-out wrong.
And even the Washington Post calls the president out on it.
“In 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), sought to attach a campaign finance reform bill to the debt ceiling after the Watergate-era revelations about Nixon’s fundraising during the 1972 election,” the Post notes.
“Their efforts were defeated by a filibuster, but it took days of debate and the lawmakers were criticized by commentators (and fellow lawmakers) for using ‘shotgun’ tactics to try to hitch their pet cause to emergency must-pass legislation,” it adds.
The report continues, noting that a comprehensive 1993 study of the politics behind the nation’s debt limit shows that “the use of the debt ceiling vote as a vehicle for other legislative matters” became an extremely common thing in the mid-1970s and 1980s.
Proposed changes in Social Security have been attached to debt limit bills, one time an amendment seeking an end to U.S. bombings in Cambodia was introduced, and one amendment even proposed a nuclear freeze.
Roughly 25 non-germane amendments were attached to debt-limit bills between 1978 and 1987, the 1993 study notes.
Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) in 1982 even allowed 1,400 non-germane amendments to be introduced to a debt limit bill (they were later removed).
Now it’s worth noting that the success rate of non-germane amendments is relatively low.
“Anita S. Krishnakumar, in a 2007 paper for the Harvard Journal on Legislation, said that less than 10 percent of the debt limit bills passed between 1978 and 2002 contained amendments not related to the debt or budget,” the Washington Post’s fact-checker writes.
“Only twice — in 1980 and in 1995 — did Congress successfully pass amendments opposed by the president,” the report adds.
Still, that’s not the same as saying Congress has “never” done this before.
So what’s the bottom line?
“Clearly, Obama’s sweeping statement does not stand up to scrutiny, even with his caveat. Time and again, lawmakers have used the ‘must-pass’ nature of the debt limit to force changes in unrelated laws,” the fact-checker writes.
“There’s an old reporter’s rule that you want to avoid using the word ‘unprecedented.’ Otherwise, a professor might call or e-mail the next day to dispute it,” the Post adds. “Let’s add this rule for politicians: Never say ‘never.’”
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Featured image Getty Images. This post has been updated.