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Democrats Unveil Debt Ceiling Reform Act to Prevent Repeat of GOP Hostage-Taking

“It’s time to put the debt ceiling in the hands of the Treasury secretary,” said Sen. Dick Durbin.

Sen. Dick Durbin asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on May 11, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

In the wake of President Joe Biden and Congress just barely averting an economically catastrophic U.S. default, a pair of Democratic leaders on Friday introduced a bill intended to stop Republican lawmakers from holding the economy hostage again.

Contending that the recent crisis proves the current process “is broken and unsustainable,” House Budget Committee Ranking Member Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the Debt Ceiling Reform Act.

Boyle and Durbin’s move comes after Biden on Saturday signed the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Act — the debt ceiling compromise he negotiated with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — just two days before the default deadline. The deal suspends the borrowing limit until 2025, after the next election cycle, but includes devastating concessions to the GOP.

“A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. If we do not significantly change the debt ceiling process, Republicans will keep taking our economy hostage and provoking default,” Boyle warned. “The Debt Ceiling Reform Act will end Republicans’ perennial weaponization of the debt ceiling once and for all by making it harder for extremists to take the debt ceiling hostage.”

“This legislation is a sensible response to Republicans’ repeated hostage-taking, manufactured default crises, and toxic brinkmanship,” he said. “I am proud to join Sen. Durbin in introducing this much-needed legislation to permanently take default off the table and provide the economic stability the American people deserve from their government.”

Although the proposal would not fully abolish the arbitrary and arguably unconstitutional debt limit — as some economists, legislators, scholars, and others have called for in response to recent GOP conduct — Boyle and Durbin’s legislation would authorize the U.S. Treasury Department to continue paying the nation’s bills unless, within 30 days, both chambers pass a veto-proof resolution of disapproval.

The sponsors highlighted that it is similar to what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed in 2011, when the Obama administration — for which Biden was vice president — was working with a divided Congress to prevent a historic default.

According to The Wall Street Journal, which exclusively reported on the bill’s introduction:

Boyle concedes that the bill’s prospects in the Republican-led House are dim, but he said he is hopeful that some GOP lawmakers might be convinced that debt ceiling fights are more trouble than they are worth, particularly after a rebellion from some conservative lawmakers over the latest debt ceiling deal paralyzed the House this week.

“I am hoping that there will be Republican members who are interested in this specific reform,” he said.

A similar bill introduced by Boyle and Durbin last Congress had 22 House co-sponsors, all of them Democrats. The new bill has at least 48 House co-sponsors, including former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Durbin is the sole Senate sponsor.

“After a near-catastrophic default thanks to political games by our Republican colleagues, it’s time to put the debt ceiling in the hands of the Treasury secretary,” Durbin declared Friday. “For the sake of the American people and for the good of our economy, we need legislation to reform the way we address the debt ceiling.”

“The Debt Ceiling Reform Act is responsible, commonsense legislation that will give the Treasury the authority to raise the debt ceiling,” he continued. “If Republicans are truly concerned about the economic well-being of America, they will work with us on this sensible solution.”

Meanwhile, calls for Democratic leadership to work toward abolishing the debt limit — whether through the courts or legislation — continue to mount, especially given concerns about a fight over the next hike.

“This round of negotiations was fought to a draw, but the White House backed itself into a corner before the next one even started. The White House may have won a reprieve from fiscal policy fights, but there’s a fiscal policy hurricane brewing,” Dylan Gyauch-Lewis, a researcher at the Revolving Door Project, wrote Friday for The American Prospect.

If Biden wins reelection next year but the GOP secures a majority in one or both chambers of Congress, Gyauch-Lewis warned, “Republicans will likely be able to again hold the entire global economy hostage. The ransom this time around may well be even more drastic. The GOP, emboldened by their victory, could try to win extensions of spending and tax cuts along with kneecapping the Democratic agenda.”

“Arguably, Biden would still find himself embroiled in these negotiations even if Democrats flip the House and hold the Senate; it’s entirely plausible that he could need to court moderate votes,” he added. “Or Biden may not be able to get everything into a package that can make it through the Senate’s reconciliation process, in which case he would need 60 votes, something Democrats almost certainly won’t have on their own.”

In an OtherWords column this week, Karen Dolan, who directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, stressed that while this time around, “Biden was able to hold off the worst harm, this deal still causes significant harm to ordinary people and sets a terrible precedent for more hostage-taking.”

“Congress should abolish the debt ceiling,” she said. “If Congress won’t act, the president should intervene with his considerable executive power and invoke Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which says that the validity of the public debt of the United States ‘shall not be questioned.’ He could even mint enough money to ensure there would be no default and no harm to families.”

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