Media Coverage Of Debt Ceiling Continues To Propagate Erroneous "Blank Check" Analogy

››› ››› ALAN PYKE

Media coverage of the debt ceiling frequently claims that raising the limit without simultaneous spending cuts would give President Obama a "blank check," repeating a pattern of promoting this false narrative -- or failing to correct it -- that occurred during the unprecedented brinkmanship of 2011. The phrase implies that the debt ceiling governs additional spending desired by the White House, when in fact it is a restriction on the executive branch's ability to borrow money to pay for spending measures already enacted by Congress.

"Blank Check" Carte Blanche, Then And Now

FACT: Raising Debt Ceiling Only Ensures Previous Obligations Are Met...

Government Accountability Office: Debt Ceiling Is A Limit On "Obligations Already Incurred." In a February 2011 report on the consequences of delaying raising the debt ceiling, the Government Accountability Office explained how the debt ceiling places a "limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred." From the report:

The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred. While debates surrounding the debt limit may raise awareness about the federal government's current debt trajectory and may also provide Congress with an opportunity to debate the fiscal policy decisions driving that trajectory, the ability to have an immediate effect on debt levels is limited. This is because the debt reflects previously enacted tax and spending policies. [Government Accountability Office, 2/22/11]

Treasury Department: Raising Debt Limit Will Allow Federal Government to Meet "Existing Legal Obligations. In a May 2011 document titled "Debt Limit: Myth v. Fact," the Treasury Department explains that the debt limit is simply the total amount of money that can be borrowed too meet an array of existing obligations, including interest payments on the national debt. From the document:

The debt limit is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments.

[...]

It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past. [Treasury Department, May 2011]

...And Doesn't Authorize Any New Spending

Fed Chairman Bernanke: Raising Debt Limit Does Not Authorize New Spending. In a speech on the importance of raising the debt ceiling, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke explained that approving new debt does not authorize any new government spending, likening a failure to increase the debt ceiling to a family "deciding not to pay its credit card." From Reuters:

Likening Congress to a family arguing that it can improve its credit rating by deciding not to pay its credit card bill, Bernanke said that raising the legal borrowing limit was not the same as authorizing new government spending.

"It's very, very important that Congress takes the necessary action to raise the debt ceiling to avoid a situation where our government doesn't pay its bills," he told an event sponsored by the University of Michigan. [Reuters, 1/14/13]

Politifact: The President Can "Only Spend What He's Given." In a July 2011 article checking the validity of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's reaction to raising the debt ceiling, Politifact found that his use of the "blank check" analogy was false because "only Congress can appropriate money." From the article:

Cantor said Senate Majority Leader Reid's proposal to raise the debt ceiling would be "basically giving the president a blank check, giving him what he wants, a blind increase of the debt ceiling to spend the money the way he wants."

A number of policy analysts told us Cantor's statement is simply incorrect. Only Congress can appropriate money. Obama can only spend what he's given. [Politifact, 7/29/11]

Media Repeat And Reinforce "Blank Check" Talking Point In Recent Coverage

December 2012: Sean Hannity Equates A Debt Ceiling Increase To "A Blank Check." On the December 3, 2012, edition of Fox News' Hannity, host Sean Hannity said: "He wants a blank check and Congress to give up its authority as it relates to money and say no, no, let me raise the debt ceiling any time I want." [Hannity, 12/3/12, via Nexis]

December 2012: Sean Hannity Argues Obama Wants To Raise Debt Ceiling So "Republicans Give Him A Blank Check." From the December 6, 2012, edition of Fox News' Hannity: "Then he wanted another extension of unemployment that's $30 billion more, and then, arrogantly, he wanted to take away constitutional power from Congress so that he can raise the debt ceiling and the Republicans give him a blank check." [Hannity, 12/6/12, via Nexis]

December 2012: New York Post Columnist Finds "The Idea Of Also Giving Washington A Blank Check" "Pretty Hilarious." In The New York Post, financial columnist John Crudele wrote: "My favorite joke of the week is Obama asking for an end to the US debt ceiling. With the Fed already having created $3 trillion in an alternate currency to buy its quantitative-easing bonds, the idea of also giving Washington a blank check on spending is pretty hilarious." [The New York Post, 12/6/12, via Nexis]

December 2012: National Center For Public Policy Research President Claims Repeal Of Debt Ceiling Law Is "A Blank Check For Obama." In a McClatchy column, NCPPR President David Ridenour wrote: "The president also wants Congress to grant him authority to raise the debt ceiling without its consent. That's a blank check for Obama and all future presidents to spend beyond America's means." [McClatchy-Tribune News Service, 12/16/12, via Nexis]

December 2012: Washington Times Editorial Labels Debt Ceiling Increase "Another Blank Check." From an editorial in The Washington Times: "The federal bureaucracy is once again about to run into the debt ceiling, so early next year Mr. Obama will demand another blank check from Congress." [The Washington Times, 12/31/12, via Nexis]

January 2013: MSNBC Guest Veronique De Rugy Claims Debt Ceiling Hike Without Spending Cuts Constitutes "Blank Check." From the January 5, 2013, edition of MSNBC's Up with Chris Hayes:

VERONIQUE DE RUGY: This is a gimmick to continue not addressing this question.

Rep. JERROLD NADLER (D-NY): No.

DE RUGY: I mean, like increasing the debt ceiling without having an actual conversation. I agree that this is not-- crises are not the best way to actually get to solid reforms. That being said--

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: But that`s how (INAUDIBLE).

DE RUGY: Yes, the problem is the idea that we can just give a blank check to the government -- I mean, right now the debt is like over six times what the government-- [Up with Chris Hayes, 1/5/13, via Nexis]

January 2013: The Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore Says Hill Republicans "Have Resolved Not To Give The President A Blank Check." From Stephen Moore's January 8, 2013, column in The Wall Street Journal: "President Obama will need a hike in the federal debt level, now $16.4 trillion, by March. The federal government already is technically exceeding that debt cap, but the Treasury Department is using accounting gimmicks and raiding trust funds to get around the ceiling for at least the next several weeks. Mr. Obama says, 'I will not compromise over whether or not Congress should pay the tab for a bill they've already racked up.' But Hill Republicans have scoffed at this bullying tactic, and many have resolved not to give the president a blank check." [The Wall Street Journal, 1/8/13, via Factiva]

January 2013: The Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore Uses "Blank Check" Frame Three Times In One Fox Business Interview. On the January 10, 2013, edition of Fox Business' The Willis Report, Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board said: "And if the President rejects that, then who's responsible for not raising the debt ceiling? Is it the Congress or is it the President's? I guess what I'm saying, Gerri, is a lot of this is going to be determined by public opinion. Does the public want just a blank check to increase the debt? If so, that's what the President's going to get. If they say, 'Look, this is a real problem. We have to-- we're not going to just give the President a blank check and an unlimited credit card. We are going to demand some spending cuts.' And I'm not sure politically how this is going to play out but I know this-- I just don't think the Republicans are going to give the President that blank check. I don't think they're going to do it." [The Willis Report, 1/10/13, via Nexis]

Media Repeated And Reinforced "Blank Check" Frame In 2011 Coverage

May 2011: The Wall Street Journal's Moore Tells Fox Business Audience "The Administration's Position Is Simple...Give Us The Blank Check." On the May 9, 2011, edition of Fox Business' Cavuto, Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore said: "Look, the administration's position is simple. Give us a two or three trillion dollar extension on our credit and give us the blank check. And the Republicans are saying, wait a minute, we already have 14 trillion dollars in debt. We're not going to give you another blank check for another two or three trillion, until we have a path to a balanced budget." [Cavuto, 5/9/11, via Nexis]

May 2011: Fox News Host Fails To Challenge Sen. John Barrasso's Characterization Of A Debt Ceiling Increase As "A Blank Check." On the May 12, 2011, edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, Sen. Barrasso (R-WY) and host Neil Cavuto had the following exchange:

NEIL CAVUTO (Host): You were concerned yesterday that it could be for show, Senator. What`s your feeling now?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Well, Neil, I think it depends on the results.

Look, we have a $14 trillion debt in this country. The president wants to raise the debt ceiling. I`m not ready to give him a blank check or a new credit card. So, the meeting today, it was a candid discussion. And whether it`s productive or not depends on what the president ultimately takes away from that meeting and what he incorporates into the needs that this country to get its financial house in order.

CAVUTO: Well, what was your sense, then, Senator? Did he give any indication about the so-called debt trigger? In other words, if we`re not meeting the numbers, I think the White House`s view was, tax hikes go into effect, not so much spending cuts. [Your World with Neil Cavuto, 5/12/11, via Nexis]

May 2011: NPR's Scott Horsley Fails To Challenge "Blank Check" Claim After Playing Sound Bite From Speaker Boehner. From the May 12, 2011, edition of NPR's All Things Considered:

SCOTT HORSLEY: Still, Republicans in Congress are demanding something in return for their debt ceiling votes. House Speaker John Boehner said this week any increase in the limit should be accompanied by big cuts in government spending.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): The American people have overwhelmingly rejected the idea of giving the president a blank check to increase the debt limit and Republicans are listening to the American people.

HORSLEY: Meanwhile, American business people have begun urging Congress to raise the debt ceiling without delay. Dozens of business associations wrote to lawmakers this week warning that failure to raise the debt limit could trigger a massive spike in borrowing costs and do lasting damage to the U.S. economy. [All Things Considered, 5/12/11, via Nexis]

May 2011: NBC's David Gregory Fails To Challenge Newt Gingrich's Repeated Use Of "Blank Check" Frame Around Debt Ceiling, Moves On To Discuss "Entitlements." On the May 15, 2011, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, host David Gregory and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had the following exchange:

NEWT GINGRICH: I would not agree to just an automatic blank-check debt ceiling. We want--you know, if your kids came in and had run up their credit cards and said, "Bail me out," you wouldn't say to them, "You don't have to change your behavior. Here, have some more money." You'd say, "Let's have a conversation about your behavior."

DAVID GREGORY (Host): But bottom line, if there's negotiations going on and they can't come to real resolution, you say go ahead, don't vote to increase the debt ceiling?

GINGRICH: I would say find a formula and pass very, very short debt ceiling increases with very small amounts and take some savings that the president couldn't possibly veto. And if you had to, do a debt ceiling every three weeks. But do not give him a blank check. Because it's wrong for the American people.

GREGORY: But don't let America default is what you're saying as well.

GINGRICH: Avoid default if you possibly can. And frankly, if you watch, they've all of a sudden said they got an extra four months that they didn't think they had. So the secretary of the Treasury can do a great deal to maneuver.

GREGORY: What about entitlements? [Meet the Press, 5/15/11, via Nexis]

May 2011: PBS' Judy Woodruff Failed To Challenge A Republican Congressman's Comment That "Giving The White House A Blank Check Is A Complete Nonstarter." From the May 31, 2011, edition of PBS' NewsHour:

JUDY WOODRUFF (Host): But isn't that what these negotiations under Vice President Biden are all about? And do I hear you saying that raising the debt ceiling may not have to happen?

REP. PETER ROSKAM (R-IL): No. What I'm saying is any raising of the debt ceiling has to be preconditioned upon cuts that drive towards a real economic recovery and long-term growth and prosperity and job creation. The whole notion of just simply moving along and giving the White House a blank check is a complete nonstarter.

MS. WOODRUFF: Well, picking up on that, Congressman Clyburn, we know that your colleague Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, has said that everything has to be on the table in these talks going on under Vice President Biden, including Medicare. Is that something that you accept? [NewsHour, 5/31/11, via Nexis]

May 2011: National Journal Coverage Of Debt Ceiling Vote Fails To Challenge "Blank Check" Characterization. From the National Journal:

A bill that would have raised the debt ceiling by $2.4 trillion failed to win the votes needed to pass the House on Tuesday as House Republican leaders sought to show congressional Democrats and the White House the leverage they have in deficit-reduction talks. [...]

Having won the majority in the House and increased their numbers in the Senate, they are looking to make good on promises made to slash the deficit and debt.

Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., a tea party-backed House freshman, said this is their cause.

"When this measure to raise the nation's debt limit fails ... we will be sending the White House a message loud and clear: You will not get another blank check from us Mr. President," Black said. "That is why [87 freshmen] ... were sent here to Washington with strict marching orders ... to change the borrow-and-spend cycle that is bringing our country down."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also supported the House GOP in their effort "to reject an irresponsible, Democrat-endorsed plan that would have us raise the debt ceiling without addressing ... the most predictable fiscal crisis in history."

The vote comes as congressional leaders and the White House are negotiating a deficit-reduction plan, which will also increase the debt ceiling. Biden is leading talks with a group of six lawmakers who have met five times this month. [National Journal, 5/31/11, via Nexis]

June 2011: Fiscal Times Coverage Of Debt Ceiling Vote Failed To Challenge "Blank-Check" Characterization From Republican Representative. From the Fiscal Times: "And reflecting the thinking of many of his fellow Republicans, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said in a statement: 'The blank-check debt-limit increase supported by President Obama and his fellow Democrats would send our great country into an economic death spiral.' Since 1962 the debt limit has been raised 74 times--frequently with intense political wrangling. All 97 votes in favor of the measure were cast by Democrats, and nearly 100 Democrats voted against it." [Fiscal Times, 6/1/11]

June 2011: Fox News' Martha MacCallum Repeatedly Fails To Challenge RNC Chairman's "Blank Check" Assertion. On the June 3, 2011, edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom, host Martha MacCallum had the following exchange with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus:

MARTHA MACCALLUM (Host): But, you know, it looks like the U.S. economy is not doing just fine in the eyes of Moody's. What's your reaction? I mean this is a huge story.

RNC CHAIRMAN REINCE PRIEBUS: Well, the problem we have in this country is the problem that everyone watching this program understands and every American understands is that we have a president who is not serious about getting our economy on track. And his anecdote to this is give me a blank check, give me a credit card with no limit, and we'll fix the problem and we'll just keep moving along down the tracks.

But, in reality, any increase in the debt limit has to come with serious spending cuts as our speaker has said over and over again. And that's reasonable, and that's where most Americans are at.

MACCALLUM: But, you know, I think everybody looks at this, you know, and hears the back and forth, OK? And you have Republicans on the one side saying, you know, that basically they want to cut spending, cut a large portion of the federal debt by cutting spending and programs really across the board, including Medicare, including Social Security in all likelihood.

But no raising of taxes. And then, you know, we had a Democratic congressman on just a little while ago talking to Bill and he said, look, you know, you have to be open basically to raising taxes on the wealthiest in the country to share some of that burden, or at the very least, you know, a tax reform plan that basically changes the whole loophole system.

Are you-- do you think Republicans should be open to that?

[...]

PRIEBUS: Well, I think the Republicans are compromising in the sense of sitting down with the Democrats, talking with the president about his idea of taking-- having a blank check.

And what we're saying, Martha, is no, we're not interested in giving you a blank check. What we are interested in doing is making sure that our economy doesn't collapse, but at the same time, if there is going to be an increase in the debt limit, all we're asking for is that for every dollar that we increase the debt limit that we ought to cut spending by an equal or greater amount.

That is reasonable, that is compromise, and that's what the American people are looking for. But these Democrats want to keep spending and spending. And our economy cannot handle it.

MACCALLUM: All right. We're going to see where all this goes. [America's Newsroom, 6/3/11, via Nexis]

June 2011: Washington Examiner Depicts House Vote Debt Ceiling Vote As "No Blank Check" Declaration. From a column titled "10 Highlights of the Week" in the June 5, 2011, edition of the Washington Examiner:

No blank check

1| Rise in debt ceiling voted down

The details: Many Democrats in the House joined with Republicans in defeating a politically unpopular increase to the national debt ceiling, 318-97. The vote means that spending cuts must be included in any forthcoming deal for a debt ceiling increase. [Washington Examiner, 6/5/11, via Nexis]

June 2011: Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Pens "Blank Check" Column In The Washington Times. From a June 8, 2011, Washington Times column by the Heritage Foundation's J.D. Foster: "If the debt ceiling remains as is, then wrenching changes in federal spending will follow. Mr. Obama will be forced to prioritize spending with little or no statutory guidance. In effect, Congress will have written a $2.2 trillion blank check and told the president to spend it." [The Washington Times, 6/8/11, via Nexis]

June 2011: Tom Brokaw Fails To Challenge Sen. John Barrasso's "Blank Check" Characterization. From the June 13, 2011, edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

TOM BROKAW (NBC): What are the chances that you`re going to get a budget deal in the efforts are under way now with Vice President Biden presiding?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): You know, the Democrats haven`t even proposed a budget in the last, what, two years now in Congress. So I want to see the president`s budget. The-- that`s what we`re working on, though, is tying a-- you asked for specifics of a budget deal.

There is leverage to work toward what the president wants, which is raising the debt ceiling. He wants what-- you know, he wants really a new credit card and a blank check and I`m not ready to give it to him, nor are any, I believe, any of my Republican colleagues.

So you need to tie it to spending cuts and really dealing with the entitlements. Even Bill Clinton said if you don`t deal with Medicare you haven`t you solved the problem.

BROKAW: So you like the Paul Ryan plan? [Morning Joe, 6/13/11, via Nexis]

June 2011: Fox Business Host Fails To Challenge RNC Chairman's "Blank Check" Assertion. From the June 28, 2011, edition of Fox Business' Follow the Money:

RNC CHAIRMAN RIENCE PRIEBUS: I mean, we have economists all over the world and people even in national security areas of our country saying the biggest threat to America is our crushing debt.

How do we do it? We don't just increase the debt limit on a blank check. We also have to reduce spending at the same or equal level. We don't introduce budget deficits like this president did at one point $6 trillion, which is the biggest budget deficit in the history of our country.

We get real about these issues. People are tired of plasticize Washington politicians saying one thing and doing another.

ERIC BOLLING (Host): All right, Chairman Priebus, we appreciate your time, sir. [Follow the Money, 6/28/11, via Nexis]

July 2011: CNN Contributor Used "Blank Check" Frame In Teasing A Debt Ceiling Segment. On the July 12, 2011, edition of CNN's In The Arena, contributor E.D. Hill said: "Well then, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raised the ante by putting a whole new gambit on the table. The clip notes version of the backup plan is to pass the buck, drop responsibility for the debt ceiling solidly in the president's lap by forcing him to raise the debt ceiling on his own. McConnell is already catching flak. Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called it an irresponsible surrender to big government, big deficits and continued overspending. So are the Republicans handing the president a hot potato or a blank check? We'll have more on that in a minute." [In The Arena, 7/12/11, via Nexis]

July 2011: Newsmax Uncritically Relays Dick Armey's "Blank Check" Assertion. In an "exclusive" interview with former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Newsmax quoted him as saying, "[Conservatives in Congress] are not ready to go out and vote to raise the debt ceiling and thereby giving the administration another blank check in which to start resuming borrowing unless they see some hard and effective limitations on government growth -- in fact reductions in government growth." [Newsmax, 7/13/11, via Nexis]

July 2011: Edmund Burke Institute President Uses "Blank Check" Frame In Washington Times Column. In a column for The Washington Times, Edmund Burke Institute President Jeffrey Kuhner wrote: "Mr. Obama's refusal to contemplate a short-term deal reveals that he wants permanent higher revenues -- tax increases -- to finance his entitlement society. This has been his Machiavellian plan all along. If that's not possible, he then wants the other debt-limit option: a blank check. Raise the ceiling without any cuts." [The Washington Times, 7/15/11, via Nexis]

July 2011: Boston Herald Column Accuses President Obama Of Asking "Congress To Hand Him A Blank Check." From Jennifer Braceras' July 18, 2011, column in The Boston Herald: "[Obama] has increased the debt by $4 trillion (as much as his predecessor added in eight years); rammed a costly and massive new entitlement (Obamacare) down the throat of a reluctant public; delegated the issue of debt to a blue-ribbon commission (the recommendations of which he then ignored) and had the nerve to ask Congress for a debt-ceiling increase without any reduction in the deficit whatsoever. Now, having failed to get Congress to hand him a blank check, and with nowhere left to run, Obama feigns shock, shock at our spiraling national debt. His solution? Raise our taxes in exchange for a hollow promise of entitlement reform in 10 years." [The Boston Herald, 7/18/11, via Nexis]

July 2011: Fox Business Host Responds To GOP Senator's Promise Of "No More Blank Checks" By Saying "Amen To That." From the July 18, 2011, edition of Fox Business' The Willis Report:

SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R-MN): It's a little bit of saying you know no more, no more blank checks. We've raised --

GERRI WILLIS (Host): Amen to that.

COLEMAN: We've dealt with debt limits before, now we're saying we're holding the credit card. [The Willis Report, 7/18/11]

July 2011: Washington Times Editorial Depicts Debt Ceiling Increase As "The Idea To Hand Mr. Obama A Blank Check." From The Washington Times: "A long summer of wrangling over the debt may result in President Obama getting everything he wants. Some senators are terrified of losing political face if additional borrowing authority is denied and a partial government shutdown results. They've been mulling two options -- a White House-inspired short-term debt-ceiling extension to postpone tough decisions and a 'backup plan' about which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said on Wednesday, 'We have a plan to move forward over here, but until we hear from the House of Representatives, really all our work here would be for naught.' Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell came up with the idea to hand Mr. Obama a blank check for $2.5 trillion." [The Washington Times, 7/21/11, via Nexis]

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