In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama inserted a speech into the Congressional Record decrying the increase in the debt ceiling that President Bush was asking for. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t actually deliver the speech, because it would have been a real stem-winder.
“Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” Obama said. “America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”
Obama now says that was a political speech and a political vote. Now he wants Republicans to simply walk the plank and give him the same no-strings-attached debt ceiling hike that he gleefully denied to President Bush. But nobody wants to vote to authorize additional federal debt – not even the people who voted for all the spending that caused the debt. Every spending program has a political constituency that cheers for it. Debt? Not so much.
The severe political aversion to voting for a debt ceiling hike is not new. For years, the House avoided the political pain of debt ceiling votes under an innovation developed in 1979 by Dick Gephardt. “Every time it came up I had to go to every member and seek their vote,” Gephardt told The Atlantic in an interview during the 2011 debt ceiling debate. “It was painful and difficult and, I thought, unnecessary. I'd say to members, ‘Did you vote for the appropriations bill? The defense bill? The highway bill?’ They'd all say yes. And I'd say, ‘Well, then you gotta pay the bill.’”
Gephardt asked the parliamentarian to devise a mechanism that would deem automatic House passage – without a vote – of a bill raising the debt ceiling upon passage of a concurrent budget resolution. The rationale was that the real decisions on taxes, spending, and borrowing were made in the context of the budget, and therefore the debt ceiling should accommodate the agreed upon level of borrowing.
But there was a serious flaw with this procedure – passage of a budget resolution, which did not carry the force of law – triggered automatic passage of a House bill to raise the debt ceiling, which was then typically approved by the Senate and signed into law by the president. The budget could then be broken, increased, waived, or otherwise disregarded. In effect, the increase in the debt ceiling was tied into passage of a budget that may or may not have resembled the actual levels of taxes and spending that Congress would enact through separate legislation.
Phil Kerpen is president of American Commitment, a columnist on Fox News Opinion, chairman of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and author of the 2011 book Democracy Denied.
American Commitment is dedicated to restoring and protecting America’s core commitment to free markets, economic growth, Constitutionally-limited government, property rights, and individual freedom.
Washingtonian magazine named Mr. Kerpen to their "Guest List" in 2008 and The Hill newspaper named Mr. Kerpen a "Top Grassroots Lobbyist" in 2011.
Mr. Kerpen's op-eds have run in newspapers across the country and he is a frequent radio and television commentator on economic growth issues.
Prior to joining American Commitment, Mr. Kerpen served as vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity. Mr. Kerpen has also previously worked as an analyst and researcher for the Free Enterprise Fund, the Club for Growth, and the Cato Institute.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Kerpen currently resides in Washington, D.C. with his wife Joanna and their daughter Lilly.