Last night Congress passed a bill (the Default Prevention Act of 2013) to suspend the debt limit until February 7, 2014. The bill was then signed into law by the President.
There are a variety of policy reasons why suspending the debt limit is fiscally irresponsible. The Default Prevention Act is troubling for another reason, however: It continues the trend of this Congress of consolidating power in the hands of House and Senate leadership to the detriment of individual Members of Congress. Further, it creates a façade of interbranch dialogue on the debt limit dressed up in useless legislative language.
The filibuster debate earlier this year ended with a deal that limited the traditional ability of Senators to debate, damaging the comity of that body. The act passed last night continues this troubling trend. It begins by allowing the President to certify to Congress within the next three days that the debt limit must be raised. This certification is authoritative and leads automatically to a suspension of the debt limit until February 7 without the need for any additional congressional action. The bill’s drafters could have ended there.
However, the bill continues with 10 pages of convoluted and pointless provisions related to a one-time “disapproval” of the President’s certification. These provisions simply outline a process for the Senate and House to pass another bill—subject to the President’s veto—expressing their disapproval of the automatic suspension of the debt limit (which they have just passed).
But the House and Senate can always introduce and pass new bills whenever they want. That’s in Article I of the Constitution. These “new” procedures add nothing to existing procedures other than to limit the timing, content, and title of such a bill, all of which are purely cosmetic and non-binding anyway.
In fact, Article I, Section 5, Clause 2 of the Constitution reads: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.” Thus, even if the Senate bill passes, the House or Senate can unilaterally ignore the “new” procedures in the special provisions if a “disapproval” resolution ever comes up.
If these provisions are meaningless, why include them? Individual lawmakers cannot honestly believe that a bill they pass today can limit their Article I authority tomorrow. (See, e.g., Dorsey v. United States.) The bill simply cajoles Congress into a show vote some time next month. Why? If a Senator or Congressman has buyer’s remorse about the Default Prevention Act of 2013, he or she can and should introduce a bill to repeal it, not follow some complex procedure that accomplishes nothing substantive.
Quite plainly, the Senate bill allows President Obama to suspend the debt limit until next February. The 10 pages of gobbledygook coming after the authorization to automatically suspend the debt ceiling simply give politicians a mechanism for expressing their “disapproval” of the suspension, thereby giving them the ability to campaign next fall claiming that they voted “against” the debt limit increase.