The debt ceiling was growing ever closer, and the president was concerned. He asked Congress to raise the debt limit, which had happened uneventfully several times in the previous decade. But this time, a legislator pushed back, and confrontation loomed.
Ultimately, President Dwight Eisenhower failed to get the increase he sought in 1953, thanks to resistance from Sen. Harry Byrd. The government stumbled along for several months while Treasury Secretary George Humphrey worked on congressional leaders until they relented, and in August 1954, the debt ceiling was increased by $6 billion, to $281 billion.
The debt ceiling debate now heating up in Washington has plenty of precedents. By one calculation, the debt limit has been raised 94 times since 1940. On Ronald Reagan's watch alone, it hit $1 trillion for the first time, and rose 18 times.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have gone to the mat over the issue. For example, President Lyndon Johnson's 1967 request to raise the debt ceiling was rejected.
But the current fight is different, according to Joseph Thorndike, a historian and the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts—even different from Congress' refusal to raise the debt ceiling in 1953.
"The difference between then and now is that Harry Byrd knew pretty certainly that they could avoid default. Harry Byrd knew they weren't flirting with catastrophe," he said, and everyone knew that he fully understood the disaster that an actual default would cause.