Voting Against the Debt Limit Is for Losers Redux

A few minutes ago, the House voted 221-201 to approve a “clean” debt limit increase.  What’s interesting about this—aside from all of it—is that this is yet another violation of the so-called “Hastert Rule” which says that party leaders ought to keep bills off the House floor that divide the majority (more specifically, where a majority of the majority party ends up on the losing side of a roll-call vote).  With only 28 Republicans voting for the debt limit increase, this is certainly a violation of said rule.
What follows is a re-blog of a post from October modeling votes for and against the debt limit.  What we find in the data is that debt limit votes are non-ideological (despite the “principled” arguments from conservatives).  Rather, they are very clearly partisan votes, with the party controlling the White House typically voting for raising the debt ceiling while the opposing party typically votes against it (hence the conclusion that voting against the debt limit is for losers).  I’ll take a look at the most recent vote tomorrow and see if these conclusions hold in light of tonight’s vote.

The full post is available here.


For this post, I examined three distinct roll-call votes in both the House and Senate on raising the debt limit. 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.

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