PoliGraph: Ellison gets debt limit history wrong

Hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted to raise the debt ceiling, Minnesota DFL Rep. Keith Ellison announced he couldn’t support the plan because it cuts spending too deeply.

He also said the deal is unprecedented.

“This is the first time in the history of the United States that a debt ceiling increase, which is a routine thing, has been linked to deficit cuts, right – and budget cuts,” he said. “This is the first time.”

Several lawmakers, including Ellison, have repeated this claim. And they’re all wrong.

The Evidence

The deal signed into law this week would raise the debt ceiling immediately by $900 billion and cut spending by $917 billion over 10 years. Congress will next have to approve a second ceiling increase of between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion later this year, after a joint congressional committee identifies up to $1.5 trillion in additional cuts.

Automatic spending cuts kick in if Congress can’t follow the plan.

Certainly the deal is unique in its savings and debt targets, but it’s not the first time Congress has linked spending cuts to an increase in the debt ceiling:

1985: As part of a $175 billion debt limit increase, Congress first approved the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. While there were no specific spending cuts outlined in the legislation, the language set deficit reduction targets. Across-the-board cuts were built into the bill to keep the deficit from exceeding those targets – much like the triggers in the most recent debt deal.

1997: Former President Bill Clinton struck a deal with congressional Republicans to cut a net of $122 billion in mandatory spending over five years and raise the debt limit to $5.95 trillion from $5.5 trillion as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

2010: A $1.9 trillion debt ceiling increase also revived statutory pay-as-you-go rules that require spending cuts under certain circumstances. If Congress were to cut taxes or mandated spending increases, spending would automatically be cut in other areas, though programs such as Social Security and Medicaid are exempt.

In other instances, lawmakers have attached a debt ceiling increase to budget bills essentially to accommodate projected spending.

Ellison’s spokeswoman could not provide sourcing for the claim, saying that the lawmaker had heard it from colleagues.

The Verdict

Ellison said raising the nation’s borrowing limit has never been paired with deficit cuts. But a look back on the debt ceiling’s history shows that it’s not the first time Congress has linked cuts and debt targets.

His claim is false.


National Public Radio News, Ellison Offers Progressive View Of Debt Deal, Aug. 1, 2011

The Congressional Budget Office, the Budget Control Act of 2011, Aug. 1, 2011

The Associated Press, Questions and answers about the debt-deficit deal, by Jim Abrams, August 2, 2011

The White House, Office of Management and Budget, Historical Table: Debt Limit Increases, accessed July 28, 2011

Reuters, Factbox – Key elements of U.S. debt deal, Aug. 1, 2011

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Understanding the Debt Limit, July 14, 2011

PolitiFact Florida, Allen West says spending cuts are part of the debt ceiling increase for the first time in history, by Angie Drobnic Holan, July 29, 2011

The Congressional Research Service, The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, July 20, 2011

THOMAS, Summary of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, accessed Aug. 2, 2011

The Congressional Research Service, Debt-Limit Legislation in the Congressional Budget Process, May 8, 1998

Interview, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Aug. 2, 2011

Interview, Ed Lorenzen, Senior Advisor, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Aug. 2, 2011

About PoliGraph

  • Jamie

    Why don’t you fact-check something that matters? Like how Republicans claim that the recession-extending actions they just took will be good for the economy.

  • Jamie

    …or like how Republicans claim that raising taxes kills jobs?

  • Jamie

    …or like how Republicans claim that lowering taxes creates jobs?

  • Jamie

    …or like how Republicans claim that rich people move away if you raise their taxes.

  • Tom

    Or like how Republicans claim that same-sex marriage legalization will have any affect on anything…

  • Tyler Moody Suter

    Really? You spend time fact checking Keith Ellison while Republican’s constantly run off at the mouth with nonsense? Fact Check whether our senators are full of crap. I received an email from Amy Klobochar, in response to my email discouraging the bill, later approved, to raise the debt ceiling, stating that her voting for the bill was in response to an overwhelming stream of pleas from constituents calling for a balanced approach. Fact check whether this bill was based on a balanced approach. Claiming that this bill took a balanced approach is as far from the truth as any of Michelle Bachman’s most outlandish statements.


  • Ralph Crammedin

    Goodness, it’s getting hot in here.

    Catharine, I’ve been critical of some of your work in the past, but this one you apparently got right. I urge my Democratic friends and Keith’s defenders to relax a bit, and admit that occasionally even Democrats speak before they have the facts.

    This is not to say that any Republicans I’ve heard lately tell the truth about anything. The equation Republican = Liar still holds true in most cases. But we need to recognize our guys can make mistakes, too. Thanks for your diligence, Catharine.

  • Courtney

    I was disgusted by Ellison’s commentary Monday. His attitude makes me ashamed to have voted for him. A debt ceiling increase shouldn’t be a ‘routine thing’. A debt ceiling increase should be linked to spending cuts. We cannot keep borrowing forever.

  • Jamie

    Ralph, I wasn’t saying that Ellison was correct in what he said. I even thought when I heard him say it in the interview, “So what?” It didn’t seem like a particularly important or cogent point, and besides, “that’s the way it has always been done” (or, conversely, “we can’t do that; it’s never been done that way”) is seldom a good reason to do or not do something.

    My point is that Ellison’s error is almost meaningless in the scope of this debate. There are many more important, meaningful, consequential errors and lies to be fact-checked. It’s a waste of time to fact-check things like Ellison’s inaccurate statement.

    And, Courtney, most of what Ellison said in the interview was accurate and important. He made the very important point that I hadn’t heard any other politicians making: that history has shown that fiscal contraction/austerity is not good for a recession or depression. It prolonged the Great Depression in the 1930s.

  • mark

    Que the crickets… wait for Ellison’s apology…

  • Ralph Crammedin

    @mark, Ellison has nothing to apologize for. He made an erroneous statement, barely important enough to correct, certainly not serious enough to merit an apology.

    btw, you probably meant “cue the crickets.” Maybe, by your standards, you should apologize for that error?