Budget

Did House Democrats defuse the debt ceiling?

Fiscal cliff (Photo by MrIncredible/Shutterstock) 

Two weeks into the partial government shutdown, good news on the budget front is hard to find. But tucked into the House of Representatives rules package for the 116th Congress is a provision that might help avoid the next funding disruption this spring.

House Democrats voted on Jan. 3 to bring back a version of the "Gephardt Rule" -- a measure first crafted by former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) that allowed the House to automatically raise the federal debt ceiling when it passed a budget resolution that surpassed the previous limit.

A breach of the debt ceiling could force a shutdown far more severe than what lapsed appropriations require. Currently, the ceiling is suspended under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, but that suspension expires on March 1. Raising or suspending the debt ceiling has been a particularly difficult vote in the House in recent years -- to avoid default, the government has had to enact extraordinary measures seven times over the past decade. The rule eliminates the need for that politically charged debt-ceiling vote, and removes an opportunity for fiscal brinksmanship.

Budget expert Stan Collender, a former staffer for both the House and Senate budget committees, said the change could be significant, "because the Freedom Caucus can't influence the outcome in the House."

Professional Services Council President David Berteau agreed, though he framed the new rule as "an important first step."

The Gephardt rule "makes eminent sense," said Berteau, who dealt with debt ceiling uncertainty repeatedly during his years as a Department of Defense assistant secretary. "It links two important decisions" -- spending levels and their impact on the national debt -- "so that you make them consciously. … But in order for it to work, it's gotta apply to both houses."

Any suspension of the debt ceiling still requires Senate approval. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has repeatedly brokered deals to avoid flirting with default, that need for a separate vote brings risk and uncertainty.

"If the Senate were to adopt the measure," Berteau said, "then it would be a practical method of restoring a governing focus to the actions of the Congress, and that would be tremendous."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of both FCW and GCN, two of the oldest and most influential publications in public-sector IT. Both publications (originally known as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, respectively) are owned by GovExec. Mr. Schneider also serves GovExec's General Manager for Government Technology Brands.

Mr. Schneider previously served as New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company, where he oversaw the online operations of The Atlantic Monthly, National Journal, The Hotline and The Almanac of American Politics, among other publications. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Mr. Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Mr. Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

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