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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.

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112th Congress: Day One

January 4, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The new, 112th Congress officially begins today, and for the first time since 2006, the Republicans will be in control of one of the chambers. Having netted 63 House seats in the November midterms, the Republicans are going into this session with a solid 242-193 majority over the Democrats. In the Senate however, the Democrats have managed to hold onto control and will gavel-in with 53 seats to the Republicans' 47.

This will be the first session of Congress with the two chambers split between the two major parties since the 99th, which took place during years 5 and 6 of the Reagan Administration. During that session, Democrats and Republicans teamed up to pass a landmark deficit-reducing bill that, after a couple revisions, helped to take what was at the time a record federal deficit and produce the budget surpluses of the late 1990s. The Republicans in the Senate also used that pesky budget reconciliation process to pass a health care bill that protects people who lose their jobs from also losing their insurance coverage. And guess what else ...they also passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

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The new House operating rules being proposed by the incoming Republican majority would generally require all bills that add to the federal deficit to be offset with new spending cuts. But they have written in a pretty substantial loophole for themselves. Under the rule, the "budgetary effects" of a whole slate of Republican legislative priorities would be exempt from the new offsetting rule, including their bill to repeal the deficit-reducing Affordable Care Act.

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Congressional committees are where the most important legislating happens. It's where the big decisions about the scope of bills are made and it's the only step in the legislative process where senators and representatives engage in genuine back-and-forth discussion of issues. The mark-up process is also where activists and members of Congress have the best shot at influencing legislation. Despite all this, the committee process has long lagged far behind the rest of congressional activity in matters of openness and transparency.

Fortunately, the Republican House rules package that will be voted on on Wednesday will make some changes to how committees operate that, if implemented properly, could help open up this critical step of the legislative process.

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Getting Ready for the New Congress

January 2, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

We're now just two days away from the beginning of the 112th Congress and the new Republican House majority. While the Republicans have already announced some details about their first few actions, full legislative information for the new session is not yet available. On Wednesday morning we'll be clearing our database of bills information from the 111th Congress to make way for the new data, but, like in 2009, some of the first legislative actions are going to happen without any opportunity for the public or most members of Congress to review the actual documents or submit feedback.

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