Is the Debt Limit Getting Ready to Go Away For Good?

Today, the House Republicans rolled over and passed a bill ending their threats to default the United States government on its public debt. At least, they did so for a little less than four months - until May 19, 2013. The GOP gets their little pony to withhold pay from members of Congress if they don't pass a budget by April 15 (but would release the pay on the last day of Congress even if no budget is passed). The Senate is expected to pass the measure as well, and the White House has said that the president will not stand in the way of it.

While there is a very legitimate point that we should not be running the US government in 3-month incremental crises modes, nor keep the world economy in constant threat, and while it would absolutely be better to get a debt limit increase covering a period of two or more years, the measure that just passed the House could be a harbinger of things to come. Read carefully the part of the bill about the debt limit:
Suspension- Section 3101(b) of title 31, United States Code, shall not apply for the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on May 18, 2013.
Section 3101(b) of title 31 of the US Code is what defines the debt limit. Read the section in the bill notice something: Congress is not increasing the debt limit, it is suspending it. In other words, for the first time since the enactment of the debt limit, we will essentially have no debt ceiling as long as the borrowing is to meet obligations authorized by Congress (which is why we have to borrow money in the first place).

This bill isn't as important for what it does right now - allows us to avoid a worldwide economic calamity for four months - as it is for the precedent it sets. Recall that because of a precedent set by Mitch McConnell during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, the president temporarily gained the power to increase the debt limit on his own. The White House has used the McConnell Rule to argue that if Congress is incapable of dealing with the debt limit in a straightforward manner, that it make the McConnell Rule permanent.

Now a Boehner Rule has been added to the McConnell Rule. What's the Boehner Rule? The Boehner Rule is simply to forget the debt limit for a promise to create pressure on members of Congress to pass a budget (yes, please, pass a damned budget). In a couple of months, having made this already happen once, who do you think will have a stronger argument when the president asks Congress to simply make the Boehner Rule permanent, thereby ending the Congressional authority on the debt limit (and their ability to play with fire) and an incentive for members of Congress to pass a budget in a timely fashion. As far as I'm concerned, the better incentive for Congress to do that would be if they weren't able to take time off until a budget is passed, but if Boehner wants to play gimmicks with withholding pay, that's fine by me.

Looked at narrowly, the bill passed in the House today merely avoids disaster. But looked at a little more broadly in terms of strategy, this could mark the beginning of the endgame that will eventually end Congress' ability to default the United States and cause a global economic spasm.

And that might not be just wishful thinking on my part, or on the part of the White House. Yes, the president would like to neuter the Republicans' ability to extract big structural cuts in the social safety nets and programs that give the middle class and next generation a hand up. But the president and the Democrats are probably not the only ones that want that. As I mentioned multiple times before, the Republicans' benefactors - big business - are not about to let the Teabaggers screw up the world economy. They have more than enough to lose if a US default causes a market panic and drives up borrowing cost by proving unsafe the world's safest investment. There are Republicans in Congress who know the reality, and want to stop having this insane debate at the behest of the Tea Party. What better way to render the Teabaggers mute while looking like they're holding people accountable for the budget?

I am not a fortune teller. But I have a feeling the debt ceiling may be getting ready to go away. For good. Or at least, go away as a political weapon.

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