POLITICS
12/20/2013 03:08 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2013

Rep. Peter Welch Offers Plan To End Debt Ceiling Hostage-Taking

WASHINGTON -- Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch is offering a simple way for Congress to avoid damaging standoffs over the nation's debt ceiling: agree to pay the bills before running them up.

Perhaps that seems like an expectation a government would already be meeting, but the way the United States' elected representatives authorize spending now amounts to ordering up a nice meal, then holding a pitched battle over whether or not the check should be paid.

That's because Congress sets the borrowing cap independently of the budget or the appropriations bills that Congress passes to pay for things.

Congress legislates the programs it wants to fund, and orders up the spending. Only later does it addresses the debt limit, which is the maximum amount the Treasury Department is allowed to borrow to pay those bills.

Since the United States spends more than it takes in under both Republican and Democratic budgets, it will need to keep raising the debt limit or be forced to default on at least some obligations. Under the spending plan of the recent bipartisan budget deal, the Treasury Department estimates the country will hit its current debt cap of $17.2 trillion in early March.

Yet some Republicans, including ones who voted for the budget, such as Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), are already suggesting they will refuse to raise the limit unless they get concessions.

The whole thing makes little sense to Welch.

"Have they learned nothing from the damage done with the previous two shutdown efforts?" he said, referring to the showdown in August, 2011, and the 16-day government shutdown in October.

The folks who are arguing that they're going to use the debt ceiling as leverage are the folks who just passed the budget that may require the debt ceiling to be raised to accommodate it," Welch said. "So there's a fair amount of Congressional hypocrisy here."

But Welch sees a possible way out of the standoffs in recent history: reinstitution of something called the Gephardt rule, named after a procedure hatched in 1979 by then-Rep. Dick Gephardt. Under it, rather than have a separate vote to authorize the debt hike, the ceiling is deemed to be raised when the House passes the budget resolution.

That way if lawmakers want to vote for spending, they are voting to pay for it at the same time.

"The Gephardt rule would require all of us in voting on a budget to acknowledge that the debt ceiling has to be adjusted up or down depending on the budget Congress passes," Welch said.

It's far from likely that anyone will take the Vermonter up on the idea anytime soon, though, since the debt ceiling has become Republicans' favorite piece of leverage and the GOP runs the House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared his love for the leverage this week, in spite of the pounding his side took last fall.

"I hope all this is grandstanding politics by McConnell to appease his base," Welch said.

During the October standoff, Democrats and President Barack Obama refused to negotiate over keeping the bills paid, and largely won the debate with the public. Welch suggested that McConnell's threat may be more aimed at the tea party Republican challenging him in the Kentucky GOP primary.

"Maybe it's primary politics he's playing to resort again to a reckless and discredited tactic. It's hard to see any of us taking it seriously when it's been such a failure and it's done such damage," Welch said. "Using the debt ceiling as a gun to get your way on something else is just a bad tactic that should never be used by either party."

Republicans gradually phased out the Gephardt rule in the House when they won control, using it when it was convenient and ignoring it when they hoped to make Democrats take tough votes.

There has never been an equivalent of the Gephardt rule in the Senate, although there does not appear to be any parliamentary reason the upper chamber couldn't adopt one if there was sufficient support.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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