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The Logic of the Debt Ceiling

Deborah Harrison | Getty Images

Very few people seem to understand why we have a "debt ceiling" at all. If it just gets raised every 15 years or so, what's the point?

Doesn't the existence of the debt ceiling just provide an opportunity for politicians to posture and puff themselves up, even though we all know eventually it will get raised?

Well, yes. And that, actually, is the point of the debt ceiling: to call public attention to government debt.

Forcing matters into the public eye is one of the ways our constitutional system works. Bills must be passed by public votes in both houses, and signed by the president. Courts must make their decisions public. Government agencies have elaborate public rule-making procedures. Even local governments are typically subject to "open meetings" rules.

All of these are ways of combating the abuse of public ignorance. One of the ways in which government is able to operate unaccountably—that is, outside of democratic checks and balances—is by facilitating public ignorance about its activities. The debt ceiling vote helps raise public awareness about the costs of government, keeping government accountable and increasing democratic participation.

Lawmakers must go on record as approving an increase in the debt limit. They must confront, in a very public manner, the costs of the programs they have enacted.

This is inconvenient for lawmakers and a great many of them would probably like to escape this burden. Which is all the more reason to keep the debt ceiling process around.

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