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Dick Gephardt, Where Art Thou?

The debt-ceiling crisis should make you miss the bland politico

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Dick Gephardt spent most of his 14 terms in Washington writing his legislative achievements in water. For a guy who spent decades in the Democratic Party's leadership, including stints as both the Majority and Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt isn’t yoked in political memory to any specific initiative or policy portfolio. Next to a walking media bonanza like Newt Gingrich—or even the elegant, unctuous vampirism of his one-time Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle—Gephardt’s flavorless public profile was never going to leap off the screen. In advance of the 2004 Iowa primary, none other than The New Republic proclaimed him “a dullard, an ideological changeling, and the stale face of a timorous Washington Democratic establishment.” That was in an endorsement, by the way.

This month’s fiscal standoff, however, introduces the possibility that Gephardt may be remembered for something other than his late-career turn to influence-peddling. As the lengthening government shutdown veers toward default, observers are beginning to reminisce about the former top Democrat’s namesake: the Gephardt Rule.

If the Gephardt Rule were in effect today, there could be no risk of default when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling October 17, because its purpose was to obviate the debt-ceiling process entirely. Instituted in 1979, the rule empowered the House Clerk to apply the total amount of debt from the House’s budget to a joint resolution that would then be sent to the Senate for approval. It combined the two steps of negotiating a budget and lifting the federal debt limit to pay for it.

For a more plainspoken account, I turned to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Steve Bell, a Republican policy expert and former staff director for the Senate Budget Committee. “Because the debt ceiling was such a powder keg,” Bell said, “the Majority Leader had a rule that said, ‘If you pass a budget resolution, you will be deemed to have passed whatever debt extension is necessary to accommodate that resolution.’”

Though useful as a shortcut through an impossibly convoluted process, the procedure’s chief benefit was a political one. Gephardt, then in just his second term, had been tasked by Speaker Tip O’Neill with whipping up Democratic debt-ceiling votes. “Republicans wouldn't give us votes, so it was our responsibility,” he later recalled. “It was painful and difficult and, I thought, unnecessary.” The solution allowed his fellow Members, up for reelection every two years, to fund the government while avoiding the more damaging vote to allow for more debt.

“In the Senate, we were angry that we couldn’t get the same thing passed,” Bell said.

Scott Lilly, the former clerk of the House Appropriations Committee, agrees: “The Senate should have gone along with it—but there were parliamentary problems, political problems in the Senate that we didn’t have in the House.” Now an analyst with the Center for American Progress, Lilly is skeptical of what he calls “this asinine vote called the debt limit. It’s not the debt limit at all. It’s simply the limit on paying your bills.” The budget, after all, is already the law of the land. Why make the process twice as difficult by introducing a second vote?

This was the question the Gephardt Rule sought to answer. Indeed, for 16 years, the debt ceiling volcano lay dormant beneath the House, even as the Reagan-era Senate was inventing gimmicks like budget sequestration rather than simply lifting it for another year. When Democrats lost the House in 1995, however, their reform left the scene with them. Republican newcomers relished the opportunity to cast ceremonial votes against “ballooning debt,” and decoupled the budget from the debt ceiling. While default was never seriously threatened during that period, the move set the stage for the Clinton-Gingrich budget nightmares that would follow, and ultimately the present dispute between President Obama and House Republicans.

No matter the pleas of terrified onlookers, it would be ridiculous to think that Tea Party loyalists would unilaterally disarm by reinstituting the Gephardt Rule. It’s possible that only a prolonged stalemate with the executive branch, coupled with politically disastrous coverage in the press, can dissuade them from attempting to squeeze partisan advantage out of America’s full faith and credit. As Lilly admonished, “We have a budget process: We vote every year for on what the deficit should be, and that’s sufficient. To say that we’re going to run a debt, and then say later that we’re not going to pay our bills, is crazy.”

If even Dick Gephardt—the man once approvingly compared to political macaroni and cheese—can grasp this simple fact, think what it says about the gang in charge now.