Democrats Introduce Bills to Abolish, Reform Debt Ceiling

Frustrated over Republicans stonewalling their efforts to raise the debt ceiling, Democrats in the House have introduced two bills that would abolish the debt ceiling or significantly reform it by placing it largely out of Congress’ jurisdiction.

The two bills were introduced by Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) and contain two separate approaches to the debt ceiling.

Option A: Abolish the Debt Ceiling Altogether

The first of the two brief bills contains only two lines: “A bill to repeal the debt ceiling,” while the second declares any standing law relating to the debt ceiling repealed.

For much of U.S. history, no such thing as a debt limit existed, but it slowly came about as a congressional assertion of authority over the president.

Before 1917, Congress could approve individual loans or individual methods to be used by the Treasury, but often lending and spending was left to the president’s own discretion.

After the nation became involved in the First World War, Congress issued its first blanket debt limit with the Second Liberty Bond Act, which limited the debts that the Treasury could incur to $15 billion. Given the president’s large financial discretion, the bill was intended to limit how much then-President Woodrow Wilson could borrow to finance the war.

Aside from a few scattered bills passed by Congress to put a cap on the aggregate debt limit that the president could borrow, the president continued to exercise largely unilateral control of state finances until the 1970s.

In the 1970s, the revelations surrounding the Watergate scandal led Congress to look deeper into the states’ finances, culminating in a re-assertion of authority with the Budget Act of 1974.

The bill introduced annual itemized budgets passed by Congress, the budget reconciliation process, and limited the public debt to amounts approved by Congress. Since then, Congress has had unilateral authority to set borrowing limits on the chief executive and the Treasury.

With the legislation, federal spending and revenues became a legislative prerogative rather than an executive one. Since then, the original oversight purpose of the bill has become obfuscated by largely party-line splits over raising the debt ceiling.

Members of both parties have often used the debt ceiling as a mechanism to play political hardball. In 2006, Democrats in the Senate—including then-Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.) and now-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—almost unanimously voted against raising the debt ceiling. Republicans have used the same move since then, most notably in 2011 and 2013 under President Barack Obama.

Despite this history of hardball, the move does give Congress the ability to extract concessions from the president, or to make a symbolic gesture of protest against the current administration. Democrats’ 2006 rebellion came as just such a protest vote. During Obama’s tenure, Republicans were able to use the mechanism to obtain a concession from Obama to cut spending.

Now, Boyle’s bill would abolish the debt ceiling altogether, leaving no limits on how much debt the United States can take. If the bill were passed, neither the president nor Congress could place limits on the maximum acceptable national debt without repealing Boyle’s bill.

Some Democrats are supportive of the bill’s goal.

Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told his colleagues on the House floor that the debt ceiling should be gotten rid of altogether. Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) Bonnie Coleman (D-N.J.), David Trone (D-Md.), Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), and Earl Blumenhauer (D-Ore.) signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. Despite expressing support for the bill, Yarmuth has not signed on as a co-sponsor.

Option B: Give Treasury Secretary Power to Raise Debt Limit

The second option would once again restore the power to raise the debt limit to the executive branch. The option is put forward in Boyle’s second bill, called “The Debt Ceiling Reform Act.”

If passed, the bill public debt would “be treated as being equal to such greater dollar amount as the Secretary of the Treasury may periodically determine.” In brief, the bill would allow the Secretary of the Treasury—currently Biden-appointed Janet Yellen—to unilaterally raise or lower the debt ceiling.

As an appointee of the president, this would return the power to the executive branch and give the president significant influence over the debt limit.

Due to its constitutional power over federal spending, revenues, and debt, Boyle’s bill would allow Congress to keep some influence over the debt limit.

The bill says that the decision of the Treasury Secretary to raise or lower the debt ceiling can be overridden by a “subsequently enacted” law. This would give Congress the ability to maintain oversight, but actually executing such oversight would be difficult.

Currently, Congress can use parliamentary maneuvers to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling along a party-line vote. In 2006, Republicans raised the debt ceiling along party-lines, and Chuck Schumer has indicated that Democrats plan to do the same to raise the current debt ceiling.

But bills to override the Treasury Secretary’s debt ceiling decision would not be able t0 use the same maneuvers in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to begin debate on a bill before it can be passed by a simple majority. Historically, members of the Senate have voted to raise the debt ceiling when the president is a member of their party, while efforts not to raise the debt ceiling have arisen from the opposition party.

Members of the president’s party are likely to continue to be hesitant to override the decision of his Treasury appointee, and to deny the 60 votes needed for any legislative efforts to do so. Without a supermajority of resistance to the decision in the upper chamber, overriding the Treasury Secretary’s decision will be a challenge.

The bill has also shown to be more popular among the Democratic caucus than the first.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who leads the party in the lower chamber, has indicated that she supports Boyle’s second proposal, telling a reporter “I think it has merit.”

The second bill also has significantly more co-sponsors, with a total of sixteen: Reps. Coleman, Espaillat, Evans, and Blumenhauer joined Boyle as co-sponsors again; Reps. John Yarmuth, Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Susan Wild (D-Pa.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Mike Levin (D-Calif.), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.), Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), and Donald Beyer (D-Va.) also signed onto the bill.

Democrats have insisted that reforms of the debt ceiling are necessary to avert crises in the future.

Boyle’s bills make the first effort at cementing his party’s demands into law, but will likely face resistance in the Senate, where Republicans have unanimously refused to raise the debt limit, if Pelosi passes either in a House vote.

Both bills are currently tied up in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Joseph Lord

Joseph Lord


Joseph Lord is a Congressional reporter for The Epoch Times who focuses on the Democrats. He got his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Clemson University and was a scholar in the Lyceum Program.

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