Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has informed Congress that the U.S. could default on payments as early as June 1. Congress, or possibly Biden unilaterally, will have to act to lift or suspend that cap. House Republicans have insisted that they won’t allow this to happen without the imposition of draconian budget cuts in return, a hostage-taking demand that poses a very real threat to the U.S. economy and would have "massive and far-reaching" impact on global trade and push other countries into a recession, as well.
In January, with Republicans already holding the debt ceiling hostage, House Democrats covertly set up the one legislative option they have for forcing a clean debt ceiling vote in the House. That “secret weapon” is a discharge petition. It’s a way for the lawmakers to bypass leadership in the House to force a bill onto the floor. It does require the participation of five Republicans, as a bare majority of 218 members have to be on board to make it work. The process takes a lot of time, so Jeffries and team got to work early, The New York Times reports, quietly introducing a bill called The Breaking Gridlock Act.
In a letter to colleagues on Tuesday, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries informed his colleagues that they had this option available.
“The filing of a debt ceiling measure to be brought up on the discharge calendar preserves an important option. It is now time for MAGA Republicans to act in a bipartisan manner to pay America’s bills without extreme conditions.” - Hakeem Jeffries in a letter to colleagues
The legislation was introduced by California Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a relatively unknown Democrat whose legislative activity was likely to go unnoticed. That was step number one: avoid attracting attention by not having a prominent member offer the bill. Step two was writing it as a “Swiss Army knife” bill, one with a lot of options for moving forward. It was written to be relevant to as many committees as possible, increasing the chances it would make it out of one of them for a potential vote in the House. The plan worked. It was referred to 20 committees and it has sat in those committees, waiting to be deployed as the discharge petition on a clean debt ceiling hike.
That is important because the rule for discharge petitions requires that they have to sit in committee, or “ripen,” for 30 legislative days, meaning days when the House is actually in session. Since the congressional calendar allows extensive time off for holidays and district work, that can be the equivalent of a couple of months in normal human working time. So, the bill has already “ripened” and is ready to be discharged if Democrats can win over at least five Republican votes.
This is the hard part: Getting the bill discharged requires 218 signatures and that means finding five Republicans to sign on. So far, no Republicans are biting. Without them, and because there are further delays built into the process after those 218 signatures on the petition are secured, the discharge petition is absolutely not a guaranteed fix for the crisis.
So far, Republican leaders say their coalition will stick together. In an interview with The Hill, Rep. Scott Perry said, “They’re not going to get any Republicans…..We already passed our bill.”
That’s big talk from a Texas Republican in a secure seat. But what about those Republicans in swing districts? This discharge petition might provide a wedge to splinter some away from McCarthy and the extremists in the Freedom Caucus, who seem to be running the show. They might balk as the clock keeps ticking down toward global economic disaster and Democrats, led by Jeffries, have given them a place to land.
There’s an outside chance that Congress and the White will end up kicking the can down the road with a short-term fix, a suspension of the debt limit for several weeks or a few months, or whatever negotiators can work out. The possibility of this temporary solution could get stronger as the X-date (the day when the Treasury Department runs out of money to pay the bills) gets closer. If a short reprieve happens, that would give House Democrats more time to deploy their discharge petition weapon and try to win over those swingy Republicans
While the House Democrats are pursuing that, the Times also reports, the White House has been exploring what’s been dubbed by Cornell Law School Professor Michael C. Dorf as the “least unconstitutional option.” That involves Biden taking Section Four of the 14th Amendment literally: a constitutional challenge to the debt limit.
This means Biden could declare that Congress is failing in its constitutional duty to pay the debts it incurs, so as president, he is constitutionally bound to uphold the clear directive of the 14th Amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”
“Top economic and legal officials at the White House, the Treasury Department and the Justice Department have made that theory a subject of intense and unresolved debate in recent months,” the Times reports, citing ”several people familiar with the discussions.”
As of now, the official position of the White House is that this is something Congress is obligated to do, with no strings attached. It’s an encouraging sign that the option is being seriously considered, because it’s a perfectly valid one and it provides yet another pressure point to force Republicans into doing their job. “If you don’t do it,” Biden could say, “I’ll do it without you.”
It would be a good idea, though, for Biden to start preparing the American public for this possibility, clearly laying out the stakes for the nation and the world about the very real danger Republicans are posing to the U.S. economy and well beyond. Biden should declare he will not let that happen on his watch. In the meantime, it’s time to tighten those screws on the swingy Republicans and get them to pull up—before we all go off the fiscal cliff together.
Biden needs to go it alone on the debt ceiling
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House GOP disarray demands Biden be willing to use his 'least unconstitutional' debt ceiling card
Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.