In his remarks to the press Friday, the President insisted that any debt limit extension be “through the next election, into 2013.” That’s a bit more than seventeen months. He has threatened to veto a shorter term increase.

How does that compare to historic practice? Using OMB data I looked at two timeframes, the last twenty years and the last thirty years. I drew an arbitrary distinction of one year as my dividing line between a short-term and long-term extension.

Over the last thirty twenty years Congress and the President have acted 44 times to increase the debt limit.

Ten of those 44 times lasted more than a year. The other 34 were for less than a year.

(Update: Over the last twenty years, 8 of the 17 increases lasted more than a year.)

Over the past (roughly) 20 years, the U.S. government spent 18% of its time, or more than 3 and a half years, operating under a debt limit increase that lasted for less than a year.

The average period between increases was 333 days (almost 11 months), and the median was 131 days (just over four months).

If we look at the last thirty years, our average moves toward smaller and more frequent debt limit actions by Congress.  The U.S. government spent more than 10 of the past 30 years operating under debt limit increase statutes that lasted less than a year.

You could argue things are different now – it’s more difficult for Congress to act, and the spending and deficit problems we face combine with legislative uncertainty around the debt limit deadline to create undesirable financial market pressures.

A debt limit extension of three, six, or nine months would be routine based on historic practice.

If you’d like to examine the source data yourself, please see OMB’s historical table 7-3.

(photo credit: Joe Lanman)