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Why Congress is Even Voting on the Debt Limit

April 22, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

From 1979 to 2011 the House of Representatives had a rule in place, for most years, that allowed them to automatically endorse an increase in the debt limit without having to actually go through the motions of introducing a bill and voting on it. The rule, known as the “Gepardt Rule,” made it possible for the House to order the Clerk to print up an engrossed debt limit resolution and send it to the Senate once they have passed a budget. It’s why last year’s bill to increase the debt limit (H.J.Res.45) had no sponsor. This session, however, the Republicans eliminated the Gephardt Rule in the rules package they passed day one. For the first time since the government shutdown of 1995, the House has no rule for automatic debt limit increase endorsement during a period in which a debt limit increase is necessary to avoid default.

Even though the Republican budget that was passed last week endorses the debt limit being raised by $2 trillion next year, the removal of the Gephardt Rule means that an additional debate on raising the debt limit must still take place. Since the House has already gone down on record in favor of (or against) an increase, there is no good rerason to have a separate debt debate. The debt limit simply allows the government to keep up with the interest payments it has to make because of past decisions by Congress to run deficits in order to do things like finance wars, bailout banks, and provide fiscal stimulus. It has nothing to do with current or future spending levels. That debate, including what it will mean for future debt, happens in the annual budget process. The Gephardt Rule helped to dispose of the debt limit debate within the budget in order to avoid politicians forcing a non-germane spending debate as political cover because they have to vote on something called “debt.”

The point here is that procedure and rules matter at least as much as the substance of legislation. They’re essentially intertwined, yet hot-button topics like abortion and public broadcasting get 100 times more attention than the budget process. But it’s rules that are allowing the Republicans, who repeatedly voted to raise the debt limit under Bush, to dubious hold the debt limit hostage while the real debt limit vote, the budget, passes with virtually no attention paid to it. 

(h/t Dave Dayen)

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Comments

eth111 04/26/2011 7:23am
in reply to fakk2 Apr 26, 2011 1:17am

Well said. Read DiLorenzo’s “Real Lincoln” for some interesting insight on the destruction of the republic that is commemorated by the IRS every year.

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530i 04/25/2011 4:26pm

One other thought. The author is disingenuous (at best). The annual budget negotiation is long, detailed, affair covering thousands of pages. Does the author really believe it is wasted effort to force everyone to take some time to consider the big picture of just how much debt is hanging over our heads?
Also, consider, when interest rates rise, and all the short term govt debt is rolled into higher interest debt (bills, bonds, notes), our interest payments on that debt will go up dramatically, potentially swamping all other budget line-items. That is something congress does not get to vote on when they pass a budget. The debt ceiling is not a formality to be automated.

530i 04/25/2011 4:17pm

Some quick checking shows the number of employees at the Federal level has not increased significantly (however salaries are a different story). What I found was that State and local government employees over the past 60 years have increased almost 500% while population growth has been 117% over that same period. They all get lumped in with “the government” when conservative tempers flare, but it would appear that our budget cutting axe should be swung closer to home. However, the number of employees is not really the issue is it? It is the budget itself, and how it needs to be drastically cut. The Gov’t is doing more that we can afford, and way more than it was charted to do.

eth111 04/25/2011 7:33am
in reply to Gary_D Apr 24, 2011 1:21pm

Try Classic Liberal.
Oxford dictionary;
(in a political context) favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform.

Read Ludwig von Mises “Liberalism: The Classical Tradition” available for free at
http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1463&Itemid=28

The terms liberal and conservative have been twisted and perverted over the last 60 years in the American vernacular.
Let’s agree to call things what they really are.
Current government configuration is semi-socialist (although that’s like being half pregnant) and has been that way for ~100 years.
Original design for the federal government was a confederation of states with 18 enumerated powers, not an paternalistic oligarchy centered in 10 square miles along the Potomac river.

eth111 04/25/2011 7:21am
in reply to Gary_D Apr 24, 2011 5:27am

@fakk2 – thanks
@Gary D; The federal government has been too large since the inception of the New Deal. My statement at the top of this thread was intended to point out that the government is too large, too invasive, and too expensive. As a function of 2.5M employees, there is an inordinate amount of regulation that, combined with taxation, comprises ~25% of the cost of manufacturing facilities in the united States (lower case u is not a typo).
As for your assumptions, I am a Constitutional Conservative. I believe that the Constitution was designed to “put chains on government”, not to give it sweeping power to control every aspect of our life. By the way, that does not mean I am a member of the GOP.
Yes, I am indignant, and for that matter, I am righteous as well. Words have meaning and I understand what they mean.
There is approximately 160 years of analysis by economists and philosophers that predicted what is happening now as a function of socialist tendencies.

Gary_D 04/24/2011 1:21pm
in reply to fakk2 Apr 24, 2011 11:33am

I would have said “Republican” but maybe he or she is an independent. I felt safer saying “conservative” although that could be wrong too, of course. Call it a guess.

In politics the words “conservative” and “liberal” have taken on meanings much different than in the dictionary!

Gary_D 04/24/2011 1:16pm
in reply to Gary_D Apr 24, 2011 5:27am

Because the first time I did it I got an error message saying I had to keep it to 1,000 characters. I rewrote it but when I clicked on “Submit” it just showed me a blank page with some html on it, so I thought it still was too long. I cut it some more, re-submitted it, and still got the same html. I exited the site, re-entered, and saw that both had worked. I’d delete the second one if it would let me.

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Gary_D 04/24/2011 5:27am

Eth111 is a prime example of why we’re in the mess we’re in: conservatives’ inability to understand basic facts. The size of the federal civilian work force (minus the postal service) has stayed more or less constant in REAL terms since the early 50’s (2 million plus or minus 10%). In PERCENTAGE terms we have one of the smallest federal governments since that period. Hardly the driver of the deficit. But why let facts get in the way of righteous indignation?

Gary_D 04/24/2011 5:26am

The previous commenter is a prime example of why we’re in the mess we’re in: conservatives’ inability to understand basic facts. The size of the federal civilian work force (minus the postal service) has stayed more or less constant in REAL terms since the early 50’s (2 million plus or minus 10%). In PERCENTAGE terms we have one of the smallest federal governments since that period. Hardly the driver of the deficit. But why let facts get in the way of righteous indignation?

http://www.opm.gov/feddata/HistoricalTables/ExecutiveBranchSince1940.asp

eth111 04/23/2011 2:58am

Pretty slanted for a non-partisan organization. The debt limit isn’t just a function of bailouts, wars, and stimulus, but they did a fine job of adding to the problem.

Let’s frame the debate like this; the budget that the House passed is a $6.5T reduction in the projected deficit. That means instead of increasing the debt by $20T they are only going to increase it by $13.5T over the next 10 years (arbitrary numbers to prove a point). This is the same budget that is being called Draconian (Draco would be insulted), mean spirited, evil, and many other derogatory things. The problem is that it isn’t even close to what needs to be done.

The plan passed by the House doesn’t start paying down the national debt until 2040. We need something that starts paying down the debt in the next 5 years or less. The government has 2.5M employees with a total payroll of $15B per month. This is where the problem resides, sheer size regardless of party affiliation.

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