During the last debt ceiling fight, some pundits in the media and on the left wished for the “Gephardt rule” when the House automatically raised the debt ceiling when they passed a budget. Josh Green at the Atlantic praised it in 2011, saying we should ”bring [it] back.” Now he is at Bloomberg and at it again and again and again. These pundits, and this is my first point, misunderstand what they are advocating for. Second, what they are misunderstanding reveals a startling blindspot: they ignore the dysfunction in the Senate. And my third point is that this is rewinding the clock on deliberative congressional consideration of spending proposals back to 1921 or before.
But first, what is the Gephardt Rule? The Gephardt rule deemed the House to have passed a debt ceiling increase when the House passed a conference report, aka an agreement between House and Senate negotiators, on the budget resolution. That’s a lot of procedural mumbo-jumbo, but the critical fact about was that the House and Senate had a negotiation and agreed. So once the House endorsed that agreement, it endorsed the debt ceiling increase. This was invented by Dick Gephardt in 1979. It was repealed by House Republicans in 1995 due to criticism, correctly to my mind, didn’t properly focus the mind on the increasing debt.
The logic of bringing back the Gephardt rule is, unsurprisingly given who is making this argument, related to the White House argument that Congress must “pay its bills”, or to quote Green earlier this year, “refusal to pay the bills for money that Congress has already spent.” Note that the substantive legal issue with the debt ceiling is authorizing the Treasury to issue debt for spending that has not been made, so this argument is substantively wrong. In any case. I think before taking out a loan separately from the question of buying a car, for example, don’t you? That was the logic of the House Republican repeat of the rule in 1995.
But in Green’s pieces, something is missing: the Senate and the conference report. His piece from 2011 mentions the conference report but is dropped from all the 2013 pieces. But this is the key and operative point. The policy he is advocating requires that the House agree with the Senate in the form of a conference report on a budget resolution To do that the House and the Senate would have to pass their own budget resolutions. But here’s the catch: the Senate last passed a budget resolution in 2009. April 29, 2009, to be specific. So the House and Senate couldn’t even agree, indeed didn’t even try, in 2010 under Democratic control.
So if Green got his wish, it would have had zero policy impact because the Senate won’t pass a budget. Indeed, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) won’t commit to a budget resolution for 2014, creating “the possibility that Senate Democrats will avoiding passing a budget resolution for the fourth year in a row.” If she doesn’t, Green’s proposal would have no policy impact for the 2014 fiscal year also.
And that is the scandal of today’s budget politics. The White House is asking for a blank check and the Senate Democrats have been unable to even offer a proposal for the future of the US budget. One of the most important political aspects of the budget process described in the 1974 budget act is that it is makes predictions about the future of expenditures. When Congress passes a budget, it both sets today’s spending priorities and acknowledges the projections of the Congressional Budget Office on future expenditures. This creates a more direct form of political accountability for future deficits. It is this last acknowledgement function of the budget process that has been completely lacking in the budgeting by omnibus appropriations and continuing resolutions.
Indeed, if you take the logic of Green’s piece you get back to the budget chaos before the 1921 (!) Budget and Accounting Act when Congress didn’t have any systematic process of debating our government spending. Except even then, there was a debt limit so Congress had a ceiling on what is going on. Now House Democrats want to get rid of that sliver of control too and cede the process entirely to omnibus appropriations.