Cheat Sheet on National Debt Brinksmanship

May 26, 2023by Brannon Miller

As the media frenzy grows over the Debt Ceiling negotiations, it’s helpful to briefly revisit similar events over the past forty years. The chart below reminds us that government shutdowns have become more protracted in our polarized era, and they seldom come without political consequences for the political party portrayed as the most responsible for the impasse—and in recent times, that has been the Republican Party.



President Days Reason

Political Loser(s)

1976 Ford 10 Disagreement over funding for jobs programs education Perhaps Pres. Ford who faced strong headwinds already
1977 Carter 12 Disagreement over funding for water projects No clear winners and losers
1980 Carter 11 Disagreement over abortion restrictions in a funding bill One more, minor nail in the Carter Presidency’s coffin
1981 Reagan Only hours Minor legislative timing matter Not much political fallout
1984 Reagan 2 Partial shutdown of environmental and natural resource agencies Minor legislative timing matter and no significant fallout
1986 Reagan Only hours Minor legislative timing matter Not much political fallout
1990 HW Bush 3 Spending cuts vs tax hikes impasse Pres. Bush and GOP Congress
1995-96  Clinton 21 Spending cuts and policy priorities GOP Congress
2013 Obama 16 Obamacare funding standoff All but GOP Congress more than Pres. Obama
2018-19 Trump 35 Funding for border wall Pres. Trump and GOP congressional leadership

The economic consequences of a breach of the debt ceiling are potentially large enough that Biden and the Democrats are strongly incentivized to negotiate with the GOP. But Republicans have taken the brunt of the political blowback over these negotiations in recent years. While voters are concerned about the national debt, the brinksmanship Republicans have used to attempt to force Democrats’ hand on budget cuts is deeply unpopular with voters.

Furthermore, the Republican legislators who are the most visible in these standoffs—the Matt Gaetzes and Ted Cruzes of the world—are not the faces Republicans want presented to swing voters. And the latest news on negotiations suggests Republicans are facing serious internal strife, with the same motley crew who held up Kevin McCarthy’s speakership now threatening to sink negotiations with Biden.

This is the first real test of McCarthy’s leadership, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll keep his slim majority together—and you can be sure, voters will be watching.


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