|Andrea Pozzo--The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius|
Let's see if anyone can shed a little simple light on this.
Okay, yes, there is a very simple answer. Before 1917, Congress had to pass a new law every time they borrowed money. But when the United States became involved in World War I, they needed a more efficient method to raise funds. The debt ceiling was, and is, simply the amount that the Treasury Department has the leeway to borrow, by issuing bonds, bills and notes without going back to Congress constantly to ask permission.
Many think that the debt ceiling is an outmoded financial tool because it isn't really able to control spending in the way it once did. Much of our debt is not up for discussion, coming from the growing costs of mandated programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As one former policy advisor to President Reagan put it, in our current situation, "it makes no sense to treat the debt ceiling as an independent variable."
Some argue that we still need it, though. According to Professor Krishnakumar of St. John's University, it represents the last vestige of Congressional control or accountability over the national debt, and it encourages Congress to "consider the interest of the general public and future generations, rather than those of special interests, and thus acts as an important institutional check on party and interest group politics."
But whatever it's utility, no one is saying it's a good idea to default. So roll up your shirt sleeves, duly elected officials, and hammer out a deal. I mean, it's the kind of thing we sent you to Washington to
What's the image, you ask? Why, that's a hedgehog ceiling lamp. See, it's a high ceiling, and I'm thinking maybe we could all use a little light.
Editing this to add a few links that are by people who actually know what they are talking about on this, or at least know a whole lot more than I do.
Fret Ceiling--Slate magazine
Abolish the Debt Ceiling!--Slate Magazine