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Fiscally Unaccountable Debt-Limit Maneuver Puts House on Autopilot

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

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.

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