Still, most Republicans said the debt limit is a vital check on long-term government spending.
The Constitution gives Congress the power "to borrow money on the credit of the United States." And the frequent votes over raising the limit on how much can be borrowed offer "a moment of reflection to consider the policies that have led to the current debt" and consider ways to reduce its growth, the Senate Republican Policy Committee said.
"In the simplest of terms, the debt limit helps hold Washington accountable to hardworking taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill for Washington's spending habits," Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said Tuesday during a House hearing on the issue.
In most countries, the government's ability to borrow generally comes with approval of the budget.
In Britain and New Zealand, for example, finance departments are given broad authority to borrow in a manner they consider "expedient for the purpose of promoting sound monetary conditions" or in the public interest, according to a review of other countries' budget processes by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Canada's Department of Finance is provided a fixed amount that it is authorized to borrow for the fiscal year, the GAO said. When necessary, the ministry can request increased borrowing authority from the executive branch of government.
Because of such policies, experts in foreign nations find the U.S. debt ceiling odd. Although they understand that it is meant to provide extra layers of checks and balances, "it doesn't make an awful lot of sense," said Paul Ashworth, a Canadian economist at Capital Economics.
Denmark is one of the only nations that has a debt limit similar to the U.S. limit. It was enacted in the early 1990s during an administrative reorganization that shifted management of the country's debt to the independent Danish central bank, said Kirkegaard, a native of Denmark.
But the limit was set high enough that it would not have to be raised for years. When debt began approaching the limit in 2010, Denmark doubled the limit, Kirkegaard said.
Congress uses its debt limit much differently. Some increases in recent years were just enough to allow for a few months of borrowing.
And that's just what the House of Representatives did by authorizing a temporary suspension of the limit to give Congress until May 19 to pass a budget.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he would support a long-term increase only if it was offset by spending cuts that exceeded the amount of the debt-limit increase.
Keith Hennessey, who was a top White House economic advisor during the George W. Bush administration, said the debt limit is important in a time of soaring deficits and a dysfunctional Congress that has not passed a formal budget since 2009.
Instead, Congress has been approving a series of short-term spending bills that fail to address the budget deficit. Hennessey likened such increases to a creditor giving a troubled company just enough money to continue operations until it can fix its finances.
"Nobody wants to do short-term debt-limit increases," he said. "But if the alternative is we keep stumbling toward long-term fiscal decline, I think it's necessary."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., however, said the debt limit is "totally useless" and has become more of a threat than a help to the nation's economic well-being.
"Let's abolish the debt ceiling, and if people think we're spending too much money, vote to spend less money," he said.