Reality check: ‘Gephardt Rule’ alone can’t fix the debt limit crisis

October 13, 2013

Even trees hate Congress. (Photo: Sarah Binder)

Can the “Gephardt Rule” solve the recurring crisis over raising the nation’s debt ceiling?  Many suggest so, with some calling it a “silver bullet.”  For both technical and political reasons, I’m less sanguine that reinstating the Gephardt Rule would achieve reformers’ goals of ending exploitation of the debt ceiling for political and policy gain.

What’s the Gephardt Rule?  Briefly, the Gephardt Rule was a procedural dodge devised by Democrats in 1979 that enabled the House to raise the debt ceiling without casting a direct vote on it.  As Donald Wolfensberger (a staff director of the Rules Committee in the mid 1990s, now at the Bipartisan Policy Center) helpfully explains, when the House voted to approve the conference report on the annual congressional budget resolution, a joint resolution raising the debt ceiling was deemed to have passed (without requiring lawmakers to actually cast a vote).  From the House’s perspective, their job was done — without leaving their fingerprints on the move to raise the debt ceiling.  The joint resolution went over to the Senate for approval and then onto the president to be signed into law.

Some reporters suggest that the rule was repealed by the GOP upon gaining control of the House in 1995.  But Republicans actually suspended it between 1995 and 2000 –  sometimes because they wanted to withhold their votes on increasing the debt limit until the president conceded policy concessions, other times because no increase was needed or because a budget resolution was never finalized.  The House GOP repealed the rule in 2001, but then reinstated it –  using it in both 2003 and 2005 to raise the debt ceiling, much to Democrats’ amusement.  (Democrats promptly dubbed it the [other] “Hastert Rule.”) The bottom line: both parties avail themselves of the Gephardt rule when party politics demands it.

Why is the Gephardt rule unlikely to resolve the recurring stalemate over raising the debt limit?

First, the Gephardt Rule applies only in the House.  Once the House automatically spins off and passes a joint resolution raising the limit, senators face an up or down vote to approve the resolution.  The Senate has never seen fit to adopt its own Gephardt Rule, meaning that there are no comparable Senate rules that bail senators out of a tough vote.  Nor is there any guarantee that the Senate would take up a House-passed resolution under the Gephardt Rule: Of the seventeen resolutions passed by the House via the Gephardt rule since 1979, fourteen were passed by the Senate and were enacted into law.  For five of those fourteen, the Senate first amended the resolution, requiring another House vote before enactment.  Conceptually, the Senate might adopt its own version of a Gephardt Rule.  But changing Senate rules requires a daunting two-thirds majority to bring the matter to a vote if any single senator blocks taking up the rule change.

Second, the Gephardt Rule did one thing particularly well: It empowered the House to shift the blame to the Senate for raising the debt limit.  That strategy made sense in the early years of the Gephardt Rule, when the parties split control of the two chambers (1981-1986): A Democratic House could avoid a direct vote on raising the ceiling, then dump the matter in the lap of Senate GOP leaders and a Republican president.  And of course, so long as the House GOP majority today wants to hold the debt ceiling hostage for policy concessions, limiting the visibility of the debt ceiling vote makes little sense for the party.

Third, the success of the Gephardt Rule is contingent on a functioning budget process, since the automatic passage of a resolution increasing the debt limit is tied to the House vote on adoption of a budget conference report.  Congress last cleared a bicameral agreement on the budget some four years ago.  Judging from the Senate’s inability to get to conference on the budget this year, the last thing party leaders need is another incentive for lawmakers to block conference negotiations on the budget.

A much stronger case can be made for reinstating the short-lived McConnell Rule, which allowed the president to raise the debt ceiling and permitted Congress to pass a resolution of disapproval to block the president’s move.  (The president could veto the resolution and then two-thirds of both chambers would have to vote to override his veto if they sought to block the president’s move.)  The beauty of the McConnell Rule over the Gephardt Rule is four-fold: It offers a bicameral solution, it shifts the blame to the president and away from lawmakers, it is far harder to derail than the resolution generated under the Gephardt Rule, and its success is independent of the state of the budget process.  Of course, the sure-fire way to eliminate hostage taking of the debt ceiling increase is to eliminate it entirely.  (Why didn’t the Obama administration put debt limit repeal at the top of its legislative agenda when Democrats secured a filibuster-proof majority in 2009?)

Finally, the weakness of the Gephardt Rule today offers a nice reminder that the effectiveness of congressional rules depends on the political and institutional context in which they are used.  This shouldn’t be surprising, since majorities typically create new rules to meet their immediate policy and political needs rather than future ones.  The Gephardt Rule, for example, wasn’t designed with future budgetary stalemate in mind; its creators sought instead to capitalize on the congressional budget process as it worked in the late 1970s.  As parties and institutions develop in new directions over time, old rules often fail to live up to their framers’ intent.

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Joshua Tucker | October 12, 2013