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The Debt Limit Fight: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

If you're the United States government, it's easy to ring up more debt.

If you're a Member of Congress, agreeing to pile on more debt isn't so easy.

Which is why the next few weeks on Capitol Hill are going to be a doozy.

The debt ceiling (sometimes called the debt limit) is the credit threshold the U.S. Congress imposes on the government. And by mid-May, the U.S. debt is expected to cross the $14.294 trillion limit Congress approved for the country in February, 2010.

So what happens? Either the U.S. defaults on its obligations or lawmakers hike the debt ceiling yet again.

Voting to approve more debt is never a pleasant exercise. So consider how vexing a vote to increase the debt ceiling is for Congressional Republicans now. Particularly when they came to power last fall on the wave of the tea party with a mandate to axe spending and curb the size of government. Justifying ANY increase in the debt ceiling is even more harrowing than these typical exercises. Which is precisely why the House Republican braintrust is making it clear that specific, concrete economic spending standards must be in place in exchange for a debt limit vote.

For one, calling for such mandatory fiscal corrections are good politics for the GOP. It plays to their base that is harassing them about trimming spending. Secondly, it's a layup to cast the blame on Democrats. Yes, federal spending has exploded since President Obama came to power and during the period that Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Plus, Democrats have been willing to cut. But not nearly as deeply as Republicans. And after all, it's Tim Geithner, Mr. Obama's Treasury Secretary, who makes the formal notification that the U.S. is fast approaching its credit limit. Thus, it's easy for Republicans to portray this a "need" by Democrats to approve more spending.

Look at this artfully worded statement from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) this week:

"House Republicans have made clear that if the president and our Democratic colleagues refuse to accept serious reforms that immediately reduce federal spending and end the culture of debt in Washington, we will not grant their request for a debt limit increase," said Cantor.

Of course, Democrats are not about to accept Cantor's premise.

The Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center (DPCC) points out that there is a "dirty little secret" in the much-heralded budget the House just approved, authored by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). The DPCC argues that Ryan's budget "calls for an immediate $2 trillion hike in debt limit."

Ryan's budget plan imposes stark cuts. But because it's impossible to balance the budget right away, Ryan's plan assumes there will be a need for debt ceiling increases.

Meantime, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is taking a different approach. He's threatening to braid the Senate in knots to prevent a debt limit vote from hitting the floor unless lawmakers approve a Constitutional balanced budget amendment. A balanced budget amendment prohibits the government from dipping into the red at all. Approving a Constitutional Amendment is a complex exercise as both chambers of Congress must adopt the same amendment by a two-thirds vote. Three-quarters of all states must agree as well.

Fiscal reform advocates have tried a balanced budget amendment before. A balanced budget amendment was a part of the Republicans' "Contract with America" in 1995. The House approved the measure with 300 votes, well above the two-thirds requirement. But the amendment narrowly died in the Senate, garnering only 65 votes when 67 were needed.

This could be a problem if DeMint sticks to his guns.

Today's suffocating debt is unprecedented. The political climate is loathe to accept more spending. And even if lawmakers impose austerity measures, the requisite cuts required to keep from rocketing through debt ceiling can't be imposed fast enough. In other words, the U.S. is now under such a mountain of debt that it would require the federal government to not spend a nickel for nearly five years just to bring the books into balance. That means no defense. No Social Security. No road projects. Nothing.

So if debt ceiling votes are so noxious, how has Congress okayed previous increases?

This is where it gets dicey.

Both Democratic and Republican Congresses have upped the debt ceiling mostly through creative parliamentary maneuvering. Lawmakers usually haven't raised the credit limit on "stand-alone" bills. Congress has usually hooked the debt ceiling increase onto another piece of legislation. That gives lawmakers political "cover" and inoculates them from criticism levied by political opponents who could point to a particular vote where they agreed to "drive the U.S. deeper into debt."

One of the few "clean" debt limit increases in recent years came in June, 2002 as Congress voted to raise the ceiling to $6.4 trillion. There was little political objection to inflating the debt limit then. The U.S. was fighting in Afghanistan and the country was still reeling from September 11th. War-time debt limit escalations are simply a part of doing business.

But the political climate was not as welcoming when Congress moved to boost the debt ceiling in May, 2003. In a controversial pre-emptive move, the U.S. had just invaded Iraq. So Republicans in Congress searched for a parliamentary mechanism to extend the debt ceiling without paying potential political consequences.

First, a back story.

In March of 2010, it appeared House Democrats might not have the necessary votes to clear a crucial hurdle en route to okaying the health care reform bill. Democrats tinkered with the parliamentary gambit known as "deem and pass."

Under deem and pass, the Democrats considered "deeming" that it had approved the Senate's version of the health care bill, without a direct vote. The idea is that the Senate's health care legislation didn't contain many of the same provisions liked by House Democrats and thus, those lawmakers would balk. So Democrats planned to "deem" the Senate's health care measure as approved by voting on something entirely different. Republicans hollered bloody murder. And House Democrats eventually yanked the "deem and pass" option.

But in 2003, it was Republicans who used "deem and pass" to pad the debt ceiling to $7.38 trillion. The House approved the annual budget resolution. And contingent on that action, lawmakers simultaneously "deemed" to increase the debt ceiling.

In essence, lawmakers avoided creating a parliamentary paper trail that could be used against them by latching the debt increase to the budget.

Another Congressional trick is to append a debt ceiling increase to another piece of legislation. Democrats did just that in February, 2009 by Velcroing the hike to the stimulus bill. There was much sturm and drang about the $700 billion price tag of the stimulus. But few noticed that the U.S. had raised the debt ceiling from $11.3 trillion to $12.1 trillion as a provision in the legislation.

Yet another ploy used in the House is what's known as a "self-executing rule." Nearly every piece of legislation that comes to the House floor must first get a "rule" which establishes how the body will handle the measure on the floor. The rule dictates how many amendments will be in order and allocates debate time. Then, the House must vote on the rule. If the rule fails, the House can't consider the actual bill.

So, in another way to screen lawmakers from taking a tough vote, the House sometimes glommed the debt ceiling increase onto that rule. Once the House okays the rule, paving the way for another issue, the debt limit is simultaneously raised.

It's unclear how House Republicans will handle with this looming debt limit increase. Will the bill be a stand-alone piece of legislation? Could it be attached to another bill? Will the GOP engineer some sort of a parliamentary scheme such as "deem and pass" to approve it? Will there be a tradeoff with Democrats and President Obama for bona fide financial reforms which will constrict federal spending? And if so, would that satisfy conservatives and tea party loyalists to the point they could abide voting to increase the debt limit?

Remember, 59 House Republicans abandoned their leadership earlier this month on legislation to keep the government operating and slice nearly $39 billion in spending. Many argued the cuts weren't significant enough. Those same lawmakers would be hard-pressed to vote in favor of more debt. Which is why House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) must carefully choreograph any debt vote with Democrats willing to approve an increase.

Of course, Democrats don't want the U.S. to default on its obligations. But they are wary of Republican efforts to portray them as "responsible" for any failure to increase the debt ceiling if they don't accept whatever economic austerity measures the GOP concocts.

Last week, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) reasserted the need to have some sort of plan in place before calling a debt ceiling vote. When asked what such a program may look like, Boehner indicated that it was still being ironed out.

Thought the fight over keeping the government open a few weeks was an imbroglio?

You ain't seen nothin' yet.