National Journal has a poll out today with the headline finding that "Most Americans don't understand the debt ceiling."
All the poll actually teaches us is that whoever writes National Journal's poll questions doesn't understand the debt ceiling.
Here's the question they asked:
As far as you know, when Congress votes to increase the debt ceiling, do you think that means...
The federal government is increasing the amount of money it borrows to pay for future expenditures (62%)
The federal government is paying off the debts it has already accumulated (27%)
The second answer, the one National Journal intends to be the "correct" response, is not correct at all! Raising the debt ceiling allows the federal government to incur more debt to pay bills it already agreed to pay.
And the "wrong" answer that 62% of respondents gave is more or less true. When you raise the debt ceiling, that allows the federal government to keep borrowing money to pay for things like Social Security checks and employee salaries going forward.
The point the president and Democrats repeatedly make about raising the debt limit is that it allows for payment of previously authorized expenses. Congress approved mandatory spending programs like Social Security, it wrote the tax code, and it periodically approves discretionary spending budgets. Those approvals create spending and revenue trajectories that prescribe how much money the government should borrow. If you don't raise the debt ceiling, the federal government ends up obligated to pay bills without a good way to raise the funds to pay them, and you get a payment crisis, which is bad.
All that means that describing a debt limit increase as "increasing the amount of money the government borrows to pay for future expenditures" misses the point a bit. But it's still a way better description than saying it allows the government to pay off debt. Oy.
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