Fiscally Unaccountable Debt-Limit Maneuver Puts House on Autopilot

Posted February 8, 2010 at 5:16pm

Just when you think you’ve seen every Congressional power play imaginable, along comes a new move that drops your jaw.

[IMGCAP(1)]In this case it was a curveball that was so tricky it arced around the batter’s back, into the catcher’s mitt and was called a strike. It doesn’t hurt when the House Rules Committee not only makes up the rules for debating and amending major legislation, but also effectively calls the balls and strikes.

The play in question involved the House twice passing a long-term increase in the public debt ceiling in this Congress without directly voting on it. Understanding this maneuver requires a little history.

One of the toughest votes Members must cast is on raising the debt limit to allow the government to finance its obligations. Even though it’s necessary — assuming you don’t want the U.S. to default on its debts and go belly-up — it’s still the easiest vote for campaign opponents to use against incumbents.

There may have been a time when most Members understood this vote as a fiduciary and patriotic duty and could explain it to their constituents.

However, as Washington became more partisan, that sense of financial fidelity has given way to partisan demagoguery. Whichever party is in the minority now commonly votes against any debt-limit increase on grounds that it is the majority party that has run up the debt with wasteful spending and misplaced priorities. Republicans opposed debt-limit increases when Democrats were in the majority, and Democrats did so when Republicans were in the majority.

To reduce political attacks over debt-limit votes, House Democrats adopted a new rule in 1979 authored by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.). The “Gephardt rule” allowed the House to raise the debt ceiling without directly voting on it. It did so by instructing the House Clerk to take the public debt figure from the final concurrent resolution on the budget, place it in a joint resolution and send it to the Senate as if the House had passed it.

The Gephardt rule was retained by Republicans when they took control of the House in 1995, but then dropped in 2001 when fiscal conservatives complained about the procedure’s lack of accountability and fiscal integrity. Naturally Democrats pounced on the opening and began using Republican Members’ debt-limit votes against them in campaign ads. In 2003, Republicans reversed course and reinstated the Gephardt rule — much to the amusement of Democrats who jokingly renamed it the “Hastert rule” after then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

The rule did not always guarantee that House majority Members could avoid voting on raising the debt. If the Senate amended the joint resolution, it would come back to the House for a vote on the amended version. That’s what happened in 1985 when the Senate Republican majority tacked the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act onto a debt-limit bill. House Democratic leaders reluctantly acceded.

Last year the House and Senate adopted their concurrent resolution on the budget in April, and the House Clerk dutifully spun off the $13 trillion debt-limit figure into a joint resolution and sent it to the Senate. When the Senate did not act on it, a temporary fix was devised in December to raise the limit to $12.4 trillion — enough to carry things over until March. Last month the Senate took up the original House joint resolution and inserted a $14.3 trillion debt figure — sufficient to keep things running past the November elections.

While the Senate rejected an amendment to create a bipartisan deficit reduction commission (thanks in part to six Republicans who had previously endorsed the concept), it did adopt a statutory pay-as-you-go amendment — something the House had passed several times last year to appease the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.

Even with PAYGO attached to the debt-limit measure, House Democratic leaders were having difficulty rounding up enough votes for passage. A solution emerged from the Rules Committee last Wednesday — an entirely new debt-limit procedure we will respectfully dub “the Gephardt-Hastert-Hoyer rule.”

Under the terms of the special rule, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) would be recognized to offer a motion to agree to the Senate amendment in the nature of the substitute that contained both the new debt-limit figure and PAYGO. However, the first paragraph of the joint resolution, containing the public debt number, would be considered as already having been adopted under a division of the question. Never mind that House rules prohibit a division of the question on amendments in the nature of a substitute. Just remember that the Rules Committee can rewrite the rules to advantage the majority party.

What was left, then, was a single vote on agreeing to the PAYGO portion of the measure. Notwithstanding this immaculate exception of the debt limit from a direct vote, the leadership was still busy working the floor Thursday, calling for a series of roll-call votes on noncontroversial matters so they could collar and educate wavering Members who were now threatening to vote against the rule. Once Members understood the leadership had protected them from a direct vote on the debt limit, the rule narrowly passed, 217-212, and the Hoyer motion then passed handily, 233-187. It was a procedural masterstroke that left Republicans grumbling in their beards. But it was also a setback for fiscal accountability because it completed the loop for putting all House debt-limit votes on autopilot.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.