Morris (bonus column)

October 5, 2021

Is Debt ‘Ceiling’ the Right Term?

by Leo Morris

A modest request to news organizations: Please stop referring to the federal “debt ceiling.” It is a grotesquely inappropriate term.

It is preposterous to refer to something that is constantly being moved as a “ceiling,” which we all know is fixed in place forever. Remember that other ceiling metaphor – the “glass” one that women in business are trapped by? They can see through it, forever tantalized by the perquisites on the other side, but never breach it.

But that debt ceiling just keeps going up and up.

It was way back in 1939 when Congress passed a law that replaced various separate limits on government debt with the general restriction now known as the debt ceiling. The initial ceiling was set at $45 billion. That amounts to about six hours of federal spending at today’s level, as of Friday, Oct. 1, per the Data Lab website.

The ceiling today, through a series of suspensions and other tricks too complicated to fathom, is about $28.5 trillion, which is less that the current national debt, which will be about $29 trillion and mounting rapidly by the time you read this. If the ceiling isn’t raised again – or suspended or otherwise finessed – dire things could happen, including a temporary and/or partial federal government shutdown.

Some of us think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but that’s another column.

That ceiling, by the way, is not to enable the government to keep borrowing and therefore spending. It’s just to cover the spending the government has already done. Suppose you sign the papers to buy a house, then sit down and figure out how much you have available to spend and how much you need to borrow. That’s how the government operates all the time.

If you have the time, go online and look at a graph charting the increase of the debt ceiling over the years. Note the graceful upward arc. Our monstrous debt has been a happily bipartisan collaboration for decades, so any politician trying to score political points on the issue deserves nothing but withering scorn.

The same must be said, alas, for those brave few who claim to be fighting against the trend.

Consider an analogy.

Imagine America as a house with a basement. The debt is the rapidly rising water in the basement. When politicians call the flooded basement a crisis, what they end up arguing about is whether to keep adding to the water a quart or a gallon at a time. And those claiming to really understand the problem are proposing to remove the water a teaspoon at a time, and they expect us to be eternally grateful to them.

The basement analogy helps illustrate the uselessness of the ceiling terminology. We surely cannot let the water rise above the basement ceiling, because it would encroach on our habitat. We could, through heroic engineering feats, raise the ceiling, but that would also squeeze us out of our living space.

No, there is no ceiling, and our politicians know it. What they really think they are dealing with is the basement floor, which they think they can break though, making the hole beneath us ever deeper without hurting the foundation of the house above it.

Of course, that can’t go on forever without the whole house crashing around us, and everybody knows that, too.

In the meantime, you know what happens to a basement full of water. It gets dank and smelly, becoming a disgusting cesspool of disease-ridden pestilence.

Like a swamp, which brings up another modest request: Swamp, good word; don’t be afraid to use it.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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