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.
Now that the Gephardt Rule is gone, Senate Democrats don’t even bothering passing a budget at all. This is likely to be their fourth year in a row without one, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray has already suggested.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee has suggested using the debt ceiling to force Democrats into the budget process. “I think it should be a firm principle that we should not raise the debt ceiling until we have a plan on how the new borrowed money will be spent,” Sessions recently told Byron York of the Washington Examiner.
If House leadership follows his lead, they can make an eminently reasonable case for the Senate to finally pass a budget as a precondition to any debt ceiling deal, enforced with an automatic reversion of the debt ceiling to its prior level if the Senate fails to pass a budget on time. The principle of requiring a budget before authorizing additional debt could then be incorporated into a reformed federal budget process to avoid future debt ceiling brinksmanship.
House Republicans could even consider offering to restore the Gephardt Rule in exchange for passage of process reforms that would make the budget legally binding, require a two-thirds supermajority to exceed budgeted spending levels, and use a sequester mechanism to keep overall appropriations in line with the budget. The idea would be to force Congress to set priorities and make tradeoffs in the context of a meaningful constraint – with the debt ceiling attached as leverage to force the House and Senate to come to agreement.
With a functioning budget process and intense political pressure from the American people – many of whom are now rallying with renewed energy around a demand for a balanced budget in the next decade – we could finally have a serious debate about how to get federal spending under control.