Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers!

Greg Koger at the political science blog Mischiefs of Faction has an interesting post this morning entitled “Fiscal Conservatism is for Losers.”  In his post, Koger uses data from DePaul professor Wayne Steger which records “fiscally conservative” keywords used by the National Review (a conservative magazine) from 1994 to 2012.  The keywords include things like “balanced budget,” “cut spending,” and “cut taxes.”
Steger - cut spendingI’ve included the figure for “cut spending” at the right.  The conclusion of the aptly-titled post is that the National Review seems to care more about “fiscal conservatism” when Democrats are in power (and by extension, discussion of cutting spending takes a backseat when Republicans are in power).  And no, the answer isn’t that Republicans are simply more fiscally conservative when controlling the purse strings.

Ok, but that’s just, like, one conservative organization.  Do we know if lawmakers are similarly hypocritical when it comes to spending?

For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit.  On October 17th the United States will crack the so-called debt ceiling, so one of these votes is in our future (at least, most of us hope so).  But what should we expect in the pending debt ceiling vote?  And why are Republicans so against raising the debt limit?  Is it just that they’re fiscally conservative?

Notably, the votes examined in this post are “clean” in the sense that there aren’t extraneous provisions included in the bill.  Most importantly, the votes occurred during three district periods: (1) in 2009 when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, (2) in 2004 when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, and (3) in 2001 when both parties controlled Congress.  The bills are 111 HR 4314, 108 S 2986, and 107 S 2578.

Here’s the results of a logit analysis (1 vote for increasing the debt limit, 0 vote against).  I tested three independent variables: if a lawmaker was in the majority, ideology, and chamber.  In the 107th Congress, Democrats are coded as the minority given that the President was a Republican.  This helps us apply the results to the current Congress.


Who votes for increasing the debt limit?  Lawmakers in the majority.  In other words, voting against the debt limit is for losers!  Specifically, lawmakers in the majority have an 89% probability of voting to raise the debt limit.  By the way, this applies to both Democrats and Republicans.  Notably, Barack Obama voted against raising the debt limit when he was in the Senate while Mitch McConnell and John Boehner voted to increase the debt ceiling when they were in the majority.

What about ideology?  Despite the conventional wisdom that conservatives are “fiscally prudent” and are more likely to oppose increasing the debt limit for principled reasons, there’s no evidence of that.  Conservatives vote to increase the debt limit just as often as liberals.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the results are the House and Senate differences.  Controlling for the above, we see that representatives are less likely to vote to increase the debt ceiling than senators.  Why would this be?  Well, senators are insulated from public opinion because of their staggered six-year terms.  Voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit is unpopular.  Thus, representatives have more to fear in voting to raise the debt limit than senators for the simple reason that they’re constantly up for reelection.

With respect to the current debt limit showdown, the results highlight the challenge facing Congress (but mostly, the House).  In particular, because Republicans are the minority (in this analysis), and because they control the chamber with all 435 members up for reelection, getting a majority to support a debt limit increase in the House is going to be particularity difficult.  Stay tuned…