No topic has been hotter in mid-May 2023 than the debt ceiling, even though many people don’t fully understand what it is. In a nutshell, the debt ceiling is a line in the sand regarding the amount that the U.S. government is allowed to borrow. If it is exceeded, the government effectively shuts down. Without the ability to borrow more money, the government typically can’t pay federal employees, keep federal buildings open or meet its monthly entitlement payments. This means that recipients of everything from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid may not get paid.
As obvious of a problem as this is, it unfortunately hasn’t prevented the debt ceiling from being something of a political football in recent decades. An important thing to note is that increasing the debt ceiling does not give Congress the ability to go on a new spending spree. Rather, it allows the U.S. to pay the obligations it has already authorized. Thus, much of the political posturing is simply grandstanding.
Typically, tensions rise on both sides of the aisle until an agreement is “miraculously” reached, with Republicans and Democrats patting each other on the back and announcing how great it is to work in a bipartisan fashion. The party in power is always the one in the hot seat, as the opposition party typically leans on the debt ceiling in order to get their own measures passed, knowing full well that the White House will always need to raise the ceiling. But as the deadline approaches on roughly June 1, the fight seems certain to intensify.
As both Republican and Democratic presidents have been in power since 1981, both parties have presided over a rise in the debt ceiling. In all, since President Ronald Reagan first took office in 1981, U.S. presidents have raised the debt ceiling 42 times — with Reagan himself raising the ceiling the most times. Here’s a look at how many times each president since 1981 has raised the debt ceiling, and by how much.
Donald Trump — 2 Times
President Donald Trump only formally raised the debt ceiling twice, but he also suspended it twice, in 2017 and 2018. The debt level at the time Trump was sworn into office was $19.9 trillion, and it grew to more than $27 trillion by the time he left office.
George H.W. Bush — 4 Times
George H.W. Bush only raised the debt limit four times, by a relatively moderate 48%, but he also only served one term, from 1989 to 1993. Starting with a debt ceiling of $2.8 trillion when he took office, he left his successor Bill Clinton with a $4.1 trillion limit.
Bill Clinton — 4 Times
The debt ceiling was raised by a relatively modest 44% during President Bill Clinton’s tenure as president, from $4.1 trillion when he took office to $5.95 trillion when he left the White House eight years later. During that time, Clinton raised the debt ceiling four times.
George W. Bush — 7 Times
Under President George W. Bush’s two terms in office, the debt ceiling nearly doubled. Starting at $5.95 trillion when he took office, the debt limit was increased a total of seven times, ultimately jumping to $11.315 trillion.
Barack Obama — 7 Times
Trump wasn’t the only U.S. president to suspend the debt limit. On Oct. 16, 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law a debt limit suspension until Feb. 7, 2014, at which point it was reinstated at $17.2 trillion. In November 2015, Obama signed legislation to suspend the then-current $18.1 trillion debt limit until Mar. 15, 2017, at which point the ceiling would reset to the level of debt at that time — which amounted to $19.8 trillion. All in all, the debt limit rose from $11.3 trillion to $18.1 trillion.
Ronald Reagan — 18 Times
Ronald Reagan was the president who raised the debt limit the most of any modern president, and by a wide margin. Like all presidents, Reagan fought his own battles at the time, but his undying belief was that the ability of the U.S. to pay its bills and remain a stable democracy were the pillars of the country’s standing in the world. Thus, he repeatedly bumped up the debt ceiling so that the government kept paying its debts. Over the course of his term in office, the debt ceiling was raised a total of 18 times, from $935 billion to $2.8 trillion.
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