There’s long been an expression that’s common in theater: if there’s a gun on the stage, it has to go off. It’s a loose translation of something called “Chekov’s Gun,” and I’ve long believed it’s a helpful metaphor for the debt-ceiling law.
The debt ceiling is a gun that’s been on the stage for nearly a century, and from time to time, we’ve seen lawmakers pick it up, play with it, wave it around, and even make threats with it, though thankfully it’s never gone off. But if we want to make sure no one ever pulls the trigger, there’s really only one logical course: it’s time this gun leaves the stage once and for all.
Now that Congress has approved a “clean” debt-ceiling extension, Democrats hope they’ve re-established a governing norm: extortion schemes using the full faith and credit of the United States will no longer be tolerated. When President Obama said last night, “One of the things that I said throughout this process is we’ve got to get out of the habit of governing by crisis,” I took this as a subtle reminder to GOP lawmakers: this particular gambit is over.
Whether Republicans intend to hold the debt ceiling hostage again remains an open question. Last night, Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) conceded, “I’m going to commit candor here: I think we’ll have less leverage on the next CR & the next debt limit.” Around the same time, however, a Senate Republican leadership aide told a Washington Examiner reporter that the party has “no intention of allowing the next debt limit hike to be ‘clean.’”
Let’s consider that sentence, pause for a moment, and collectively bang our heads against our desks.
Policymakers can end the extortion, the economic uncertainty, and the threat of economic calamity by taking this gun off the stage – or at least unloading it. Josh Green recently talked up one of the more sensible solutions.
Back in 1979, the Democratic House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, handed the unhappy job of lining up votes for a debt-ceiling raise to Representative Richard Gephardt, then a young Democratic congressman from Missouri. Gephardt hated this, and, realizing he’d probably get stuck with it again, consulted the parliamentarian about whether the two votes could be combined. The parliamentarian said they could. Thereafter, whenever the House passed a budget resolution, the debt ceiling was “deemed” raised.The “Gephardt Rule,” as it became known, lasted until 1995, when the new House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, fresh from the Republican triumph of the 1994 midterms, recognized the same thing that Tea Party Republicans recognize today: The threat of default could be used to extort Democratic concessions. Gingrich abolished the Gephardt Rule, and within the year the government had shut down.
Long story short, under the Gephardt Rule, Congress maintains its power of the purse and approves federal spending. If expenditures are greater than receipts, as they nearly always are, it’s simply automatic that the Treasury will have the borrowing authority to pay the nation’s bills. Gingrich ended the practice, but there’s no reason contemporary policymakers can’t bring it back.
If Congress doesn’t like the Gephardt Rule, there are other alternative solutions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, floated a related idea in 2011 in which the debt ceiling would remain in place, but the legislative burden would shift – the White House would have the authority to extend Treasury’s borrowing, and instead of going to Congress for permission, Congress would only have the power to proactively block Treasury. In other words, instead of needing a “yes” from Congress, lawmakers would only have the ability to say “no.”
There’s also the possibility of a constitutional challenge – there’s a credible argument to be made that the debt-ceiling statute itself violates several provisions of the Constitution, including the 14th Amendment, so it should be struck down in the courts. If not, University of Chicago Law School professor Eric Posner recommends a constitutional amendment to prevent disaster in the future.
There are options. The point, though, is simple: the status quo shouldn’t be left in place.
It doesn’t even have to be seen as a partisan issue – Dean Clancy, who works on policy for the far-right FreedomWorks group, recently endorsed scrapping the debt ceiling, too. Everyone from Tim Geithner to Warren Buffett to Alan Greenspan has reached the same conclusion.
Most modern, industrialized countries don’t have a statutory debt limit for exactly this reason – it’s simply too dangerous. It’s time for the United States to catch up and eliminate this weapon before someone – which is to say, us – gets hurt.
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It's time to take the gun off the stage