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The current debt ceiling issue might feel familiar. Here's why


I'm Ailsa Chang in Los Angeles with a story today about a long-running drama, granted a somewhat wonky drama that's been haunting Capitol Hill for weeks now.


UNIDENTFIED PERSON #1: Where does the debt ceiling debate stand right now?

MITCH MCCONNELL: ...Raising the debt ceiling...

UNIDENTFIED PERSON #2: ...Ceiling crisis to a swift end?

UNIDENTFIED PERSON #3: ...Whether or not they raise the debt ceiling. Correct?

UNIDENTFIED PERSON #4: ...Raise the debt ceiling.

NANCY PELOSI: Lifting the debt ceiling...

CHANG: Yes, the debt ceiling - the cap that Congress sets on how much debt the country can carry. And the U.S. is about to reach it again. Congress has yet to raise it to prevent the U.S. from default. And if it feels like you have seen this movie before or you are already experiencing debt ceiling fatigue, well, you are not alone.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's a meteor headed to crash into our economy.

DONALD TRUMP: ...A very, very sacred thing in our country, the debt ceiling.

BIDEN: We should all want to stop it.

BARACK OBAMA: Now, the other congressionally imposed deadline coming up is the so-called debt ceiling.

RONALD REAGAN: This is an action that we must take to prevent the government from defaulting on its obligations.

CHANG: So why does this keep happening, and what does it tell us about our politics today? Well, NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is on Capitol Hill today, and we have challenged her to help us fervently care about the debt ceiling. Hello, Kelsey.


CHANG: (Laughter) OK. So you and I were on the Hill together. And I mean, the debt ceiling - kind of like government shutdowns, the debt ceiling is, like, this thing that we are constantly writing stories about. Right?

SNELL: Yeah. And we're constantly writing about it now in particular because Congress is kind of hitting this limit more often. You know, the odd thing in the background is that in this instance, both parties agree that the government can't default. They have to do something about this.

CHANG: Yeah.

SNELL: But this fight really does go in cycles. And in a lot of ways, so does Congress. You know, it's not totally uncommon for the debt limit to turn into a fight about tons of unrelated policy stuff. And, you know, part of the cyclical thing happening here - and we heard, you know, former president Ronald Reagan talking about this - is in part because there was a period in the 1980s and '90s where this, you know, this debt limit fight was just about as heated as it is today because deficits ballooned, and Congress had to address it. But right now - this fight right now really does seem more entrenched, and it really is very difficult to see how any of it gets resolved.

CHANG: OK, interesting. This drama has been going on for quite some time, the debt ceiling drama. But you're thinking that this time around is a slightly different story. Tell me, how is it different?

SNELL: You know, this is a particularly ugly fight and a particularly bitter fight, in part because the two parties are kind of treating it as a proxy battle for really fundamental differences in their political worldviews. Republicans have staked their objections on forcing Democrats to pay politically for attempting kind of New Deal-style, big spending reimagining of the role and scope of the federal government. But Democrats don't have the huge majorities they had during the New Deal, and this has kind of turned into a fight about who has moral and procedural high ground on addressing the debt limit and, you know, the value of debt, which is pretty darn risky because they're fighting about process while America is hearing the threat of a recession.

CHANG: Exactly. Can you just step back and remind us, why do we even have a debt ceiling? Like, why can't we just get rid of this thing? Why are we doing this to ourselves over and over again?

SNELL: Well, Congress has always kind of worried about debt and deficit, right? And they set up the debt limit during World War I to kind of placate members of Congress who opposed the cost of the war. At the time, they set it at a billion dollars. Now, they upped the number to 300 billion and during World War II, and it took them from the end of World War II until 1962 to get back to that number. Now, if you compare that to the most recent couple of decades, they've had to increase it 18 times since 2002, and the number is now over $28 trillion.

CHANG: I can't even conceive...

SNELL: Right.

CHANG: ...A number like that. OK. So what is the Republican argument right now in this debt ceiling fight?

SNELL: They're essentially saying that if Democrats want to raise spending by going around the filibuster with the budget process - and you know, we've talked about this a lot; it's called reconciliation - well, they should do that for the debt limit, too. They're trying to leverage a very slim majority Democrats have to dictate how Democrats should use the power, and they want to embarrass Democrats along the way.

CHANG: And Democrats are like, uh-uh-uh, we're not your puppets. We're not going to do what you say.

SNELL: You know, they say Republicans help make the debt, and they want to make sure that Republicans have to help pay for it. And they want to also not be told how to govern. They worry that caving into McConnell now puts them at risk of being run over by him again later.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kelsey Snell. Thank you so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.