POLITICS
02/12/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2014

Want To Prevent More Debt Ceiling Fiascoes? Dick Gephardt To The Rescue!

Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives did something that -- in the past -- wouldn't have garnered much attention: They passed a clean bill authorizing a raise in the debt ceiling. A day later, the Senate, after briefly making it interesting, pulled off the same feat.

It says a lot about the current state of intractable, dysfunction-bloated partisan warfare in Washington that these events resulted in wide-eyed headlines treating them like a paradigm-shattering shift in American politics. For the sake of analogy, imagine being asked to appear in your own CNN segment simply because you paid off your credit card charges in the fashion to which you'd agreed.

But over the past few years, the periodic need to raise the debt ceiling, a symbolic ritual in which Congress acknowledges that they've passed laws and allocated moneys, has become the venue of apocalyptic hostage-taking scenarios in which GOP legislators attempt to extract major concessions from the White House and their Democratic colleagues, with the fate of the global economy hanging in the balance.

President Barack Obama has to assume some responsibility for everyone arriving at this point. Back in 2011, Obama, in search of the ever-elusive "Grand Bargain," used the occasion of the debt-ceiling debate to attempt the brokerage of a budget deal. His reward for allowing that rough beast to be born? Congressional Republicans made multiple attempts to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. Obama learned his lesson and shifted to a "no negotiations whatsoever" stance during the standoff that gripped Capitol Hill in the fall of 2013.

And during that contretemps, public disapproval of the Congressional Republicans' tactics fostered an opportunity for conservatives to learn a lesson of their own. This time around, Republicans briefly considered attaching the repeal of a cut to military pensions to the debt ceiling bill -- apparently not bothered by the irony of asking for a spending increase after years of caterwauling in these standoffs about out-of-control debt -- before House Speaker John Boehner finally did what he probably wanted to do all along: suspend the so-called "Hastert Rule" and let the House vote.

And so it came to pass that 28 House Republicans joined with a near majority of House Democrats to pass the standard clean debt ceiling bill and move on with their lives. The next day, in the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) showed up to ensure the bill achieved cloture, making passage a fait accompli from there. (An impending snowstorm also helped to ensure that this wasn't dragged out any longer than necessary.)

It would seem, then, that we're finally past this period of our lives where threatening to default on America's sovereign credit was seen as a normal thing for grown-ass adults in a modern democracy to do. So what happens now?

Well, we could go back to the old days of debt ceiling demagoguery. See, long before debt ceiling deliberations became an extinction-level threat, lawmakers would use the occasion to melodramatically parade themselves on the grandstand, giving speeches inveighing against the political priorities of their opponents. In 2006, when Obama was a senator, he gave one such oration, and it was just as idiotic as anything that was said during the hostage-taking era.

But there was a big difference -- in that more innocent era, such speechifying was all for show, an way to voice dissatisfaction in a safe space. Back then, lawmakers might vent a little spleen and cast symbolic votes against raising the debt ceiling, but they did so knowing that in the end, the votes for a clean and seamless raise in the debt ceiling were already guaranteed.

As Matt Yglesias has pointed out, that 2006 debt-ceiling debate -- the one in which Obama gave his dumb speech -- was pretty instructive:

To use a technical term, what Obama's doing here is bullshitting. The debt ceiling bill has majority support in both houses and is clearly going to pass. Rather than doing the right thing and voting "yes," Obama has decided to make a "no" vote and then deliver a speech denouncing George W. Bush's fiscal policy. But he's not organizing a filibuster. The fact that the bill passed the Senate 52-48 is a huge tell. Nothing passes the Senate with 52 votes if the minority party is actually trying to stop it from passing. Obama didn't demand the partial repeal of the Bush tax cuts as the price for his debt ceiling vote because he didn't demand anything as his price for his debt ceiling vote. There was no negotiation, no demand, no effort to block passage, and actually no effort to do anything at all. It was just a forum for silly speeches.

Just like airplane skyjackers once enjoyed a "romantic" period -- in which disheveled political outcasts demanded safe passage to outlier regimes, like Cuba, that would inevitably imprison them as malcontents -- the debt ceiling debate has had its halcyon days of hot tempers and empty gestures and shenanigans. But eventually things got pushed too far: The old way of doing things may have seemed safe, but it inevitably led to the default crises of the past few years. The old theater maxim applies -- the gun brandished in the first act inevitably goes off in the final.

So if there's no return to the salad days of debt ceiling discourse, where can we go from here? Well, this gives me the opportunity to say something that I rarely have the occasion to say: Let's listen to Dick Gephardt! As The Atlantic's Joshua Green related back in May 2011, when Gephardt first came to Congress as a representative from Missouri in 1979, House Speaker Tip O'Neill tasked him with whipping votes on the debt ceiling. It was a task he hated, because it was a vote that no one wanted to cast.

Reminding his colleagues that they had, in fact, passed a bunch of laws was a drag, and the whole exercise was actually pointless. To Gephardt's reckoning, asking Congress first to pass a budget, and then to make a subsequent change to the debt ceiling, was silly. Why have a two-step process when one step was sufficient?

Per Green:

Gephardt realized that the easiest way to fix the problem and impose some rationality on the process, was to do away with the second vote. He consulted the parliamentarian. "I asked if there was a way that when we pass the budget [the debt ceiling] can be deemed 'raised' to accommodate the budget people are voting for," Gephardt said. "He said, 'Yeah, we think we can work that out.'"

Thus was born the "Gephardt rule." For a period thereafter, the adoption of the conference report on the budget resolution would trigger the Gephardt rule and "deem to have passed" legislation raising the debt limit to accommodate the spending and revenue levels approved in the budget. Presto! Problem solved.

Seems to me to be the right approach. Or we could abolish the debt ceiling altogether. But let's not return to the debt ceiling dog and pony show. It's done a lot of harm, mainly by breeding a lot of weird ideas in the populace. Right now, there are a lot of people who honestly believe the debt ceiling is a mechanism that can shift a budget trajectory. There are even people out there who believe that breaching the debt ceiling won't cause a default crisis. Heck, in the deepest wilderness, you'll encounter some who believe a default crisis would be a good thing. That's all the product of having these weird "debates" on something that's actually undebatable -- the notion that obligations must be honored.

According to Green, here's what Gephardt used to say to his reluctant colleagues:

I'd say to members, 'Did you vote for the appropriations bill? The defense bill? The highway bill?' They'd all say yes. And I'd say, 'Well, then you gotta pay the bill. If you didn't mean it, don't vote for it. Then you wont have to pay for it.'"

What a concept.

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