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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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  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Comm_reply
    fakk2 04/24/2011 11:35am

    BTW, I have to ask, did you just think you sounded bad with your post? I mean, in both posts, you used word for word except now you put a name to your pandering, stating that eth111 is the one voice for all conservatives everywhere. Oh yeah, and one post has fact to backup what’s being said whereas the other doesn’t. So, I guess I’m just a little confused as to why 2 posts that have the same message with the same words.

  • 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?

  • Comm_reply
    fakk2 04/24/2011 11:33am

    It’s kinda funny though how when someone says they’re “conservative” on an issue or taking a “conservative stance” is now a bad thing. Maybe if Congress had been a little more “conservative” with their money, we wouldn’t have such high debt. Maybe if fat people had been a little more “conservative” with their diet they wouldn’t have over-eaten. Maybe if smokers had been more “conservative” with their habit, they wouldn’t be smoking 1 or 2 packs a day.

    Not to say you’re wrong, I guess I could see the point of saying the antithesis by stating everyone should be more “liberal”. After all, a “liberal” congress could spend 9 or 10 trillion more than they have, or a fat person could be more “liberal” with their diet and over-eat if they have the money, or a smoker could be more “liberal” with their habit and start smoking 4 packs a day. Of course, nothing bad would come from THOSE things happening. And we all know NOTHING bad would ever happen in the “liberal” examples. Right?

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    Gary_D 04/24/2011 1:21pm

    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!

  • Comm_reply
    eth111 04/25/2011 7:33am

    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

    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.

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    fakk2 04/25/2011 11:15pm

    That makes sense. Sorry to be so picky on “conservative” or “liberal”. It really irks me how, when saying those words, people INSTANTLY either favor or disagree with what you’re saying, not on the merits of what you’re saying. It would be an interesting study to find how the words changed meaning over the last 100+ years, and how people’s perceptions of those words have an effect on messages, even if the message are the examples I gave.

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    Gary_D 04/24/2011 1:16pm

    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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    fakk2 04/25/2011 11:13pm

    Wow, this site does some WEIRD stuff sometimes. That makes a lot more sense though why each post was word for word, mostly at least.

    BTW, YAY!!! Comments now support formatting!

  • Comm_reply
    eth111 04/25/2011 7:21am

    @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.

  • Comm_reply
    fakk2 04/26/2011 1:17am

    OK, I have to ask, why the lowercase “u”? Are you suggesting we are united by a pact to respect each state’s sovereignty under the umbrella of a federal legislature, which can be revoked if a state deems the legislature is over-reaching in it’s statutes or not acting in the best interest of the citizenry of the state? Of course it’s not that, I mean, everyone knows the civil war was to save and solidify the republic which everyone wanted to be a part of, not to punish the south monetarily or to bully the states into complying with a possibly tyranny against their will, right?

  • Comm_reply
    eth111 04/26/2011 7:23am

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • fakk2 04/26/2011 12:00am

    Definitely agree 530i, the issue is the budget itself. It’ll never happen, but an “across-the-board” cut of 15% would be a great thing.

    The first step needs to be a balanced budget. Logically, it makes sense we can’t have forward progression until we stop backward progression. In this case, we can’t underspend until we at least limit ourselves to spending only what we have.

    Once we have a balanced budget, an across the board cut makes the most logical sense. There’s no good political agenda to stopping an across the board cut other than trying to buy votes. Maybe that would be enough, maybe not. But if we’re only spending what we have, and then cut spending below that, it would at least limit our future losses, and eventually (very slowly) pay everything off.

  • fakk2 04/26/2011 12:03am

    I’m glad I checked this when I was posting it. I pressed the “submit” button, and nothing happened. It didn’t count characters, show a preview, or say it had been posted. I can definitely see how Gary_D would’ve double-posted.

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