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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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