Bring Back the Gephardt Rule

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Ted Cruz, the freshman Senator from Texas and Tea Party firebrand, is channeling his inner Don Quixote and promising to filibuster the clean debt limit that was just passed by Democrats in the House.

By taking this worthless step, Cruz is taking a huge problem for the Democrats and making it a problem for the Republicans.

The debt limit vote is universally unpopular and it always has been unpopular. The American people aren’t comfortable with extending the limit on the national credit card.

They get more uncomfortable, though, when the Federal government can’t pay folks in the military or send out Social Security checks.

When I worked in the leadership, I always thought they should rename the debt limit bill the “Social Security payment act,” because that is what the debt limit extension really accomplished. But Republicans who wanted to vote against a debt limit extension didn’t want to vote against a social security payment bill, so that idea never really left the ground.

That’s kind of what happened to John Boehner yesterday. He wanted to compel his guys to vote for the debt limit extension by putting a military pensions provision in the package. His guys didn’t want to vote against the military pension provision, but also didn’t want to vote for the debt limit extension, and they bitched up a storm.

Boehner did about the only thing he could do in those circumstances. He let the Democrats vote for it, and had a small portion of his Conference join them. It wasn’t a pretty vote, but it took a major issue off the table in relatively painless fashion.

Some of his most vulnerable members were able to take a pass, the hard-line conservatives were able to vote no, and just about every Republican member in the middle was also able to do the famous “vote-no, but hope it passes” maneuver.

It has been pretty much the tradition in the House to make the minority walk the line on the debt limit when the minority has the White House. Tip O’Neill made Bob Michel round up the votes to pass a debt limit when Ronald Reagan was President in 1980’s, for example.

The fact that Boehner was able to protect so many of his members tells you how willing Nancy Pelosi has been to support her President, and also how ably Boehner has been in guiding this debate to the most favorable ground for the GOP.

But of course, that’s not how the outside groups who have a vested interest in campaigning against John Boehner see it.  They have called for the Speaker’s head because he did his level best to protect his members from certain peril on this always uncomfortable vote.

Using the debt limit as a political weapon has outlived its usefulness.

It is time to bring back the Gephardt rule, a parliamentary device that allowed the Majority to automatically spin out an increase in the debt limit when the House of Representatives passed a budget.

A debt limit should be passed as part of a bigger debate on the budget, not in isolation. A debt limit is a speed bump in the legislative process, and a chance for policy makers to understand how much more we are extending the debt limit and what that means for long term growth. The debt limit debate should happen as part of a budget debate, and if folks are actually concerned about the long-term fiscal health of this country, they should vote to limit the growth of entitlements within the context of that debate.

Taken in isolation, the ramifications for not passing a debt limit are too dangerous to contemplate. Do we really want to have America remembered as the country that refused to pay its debts? Do we really want to be like Argentina?

But considered as part of the budget window, a debate on the debt limit can compel policy makers to make better choices as part of that fiscal future.

Today, the debt limit expansion is a Democratic problem, caused by the President’s profligate spending. They should be the ones on the hook for extending it, and if it weren’t for Ted Cruz’s non-sense, they would be the ones who were primarily responsible for passing it in Senate, just as they were the ones who largely passed it in the House.

Editor’s Note: John Feehery worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans in Congress. Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at