WASHINGTON — Call it an escape valve, an off-ramp or a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.
From Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street to Main Street, those anxious about the political impasse over raising the federal debt limit are eying an arcane, seldom successful congressional process known as a discharge petition as a possible solution to ward off a disastrous default.
The petition is just what its name implies: a signed demand, in this case bearing the signatures of a majority of the House, that can force consideration on the floor of a certain piece of legislation. The demand would be an increase in the federal debt limit — a way of staving off disaster if House Republicans refuse to agree to raise it before the Treasury Department exhausts its legal authority to borrow to pay its creditors this summer.
But the process is exceedingly difficult, time-consuming and easily derailed. It has been successful only rarely in recent decades, most notably with passage of a campaign finance overhaul in 2002.
That high degree of difficulty — and the economic threat posed by a federal default — has some Democrats urging their colleagues in the House to, at minimum, begin the process soon. They see it as a safeguard in the event that dormant debt talks between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy deteriorate further and the country finds itself on the brink of economic peril with no end in sight this year.
Even if Congress does not ultimately need the discharge petition, they argue, lawmakers should get the ball rolling just in case — and soon.
“I do think it is important to lay the groundwork for a discharge petition because it is a complicated process, so you need to plan ahead — meaning now,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the former top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Having a backup would be a good strategy and, if necessary, would put pressure on House Republicans.”
Executing a discharge petition is convoluted and politically dicey. It is a deliberately arduous exercise because it is intended to wrest control of the House floor from the majority leadership — an outcome that neither party wants to encourage on a regular basis. Since it is typically a tool of the minority, it requires wooing some members of the majority to defy their leadership and cross party lines to sign on. To force a debt limit vote, Democrats would need the support of all their members, as well as at least five Republican defectors.
Understand the U.S. Debt Ceiling
What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling, also called the debt limit, is a cap on the total amount of money that the federal government is authorized to borrow via U.S. Treasury securities, such as bills and savings bonds, to fulfill its financial obligations. Because the United States runs budget deficits, it must borrow huge sums of money to pay its bills.
The limit has been hit. What now? America hit its technical debt limit on Jan. 19. The Treasury Department will now begin using “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations. These measures are essentially fiscal accounting tools that curb certain government investments so that the bills continue to be paid. Those options could be exhausted by June.
What is at stake? Once the government exhausts its extraordinary measures and runs out of cash, it would be unable to issue new debt and pay its bills. The government could wind up defaulting on its debt if it is unable to make required payments to its bondholders. Such a scenario would be economically devastating and could plunge the globe into a financial crisis.
Can the government do anything to forestall disaster? There is no official playbook for what Washington can do. But options do exist. The Treasury could try to prioritize payments, such as paying bondholders first. If the United States does default on its debt, which would rattle the markets, the Federal Reserve could theoretically step in to buy some of those Treasury bonds.
Why is there a limit on U.S. borrowing? According to the Constitution, Congress must authorize borrowing. The debt limit was instituted in the early 20th century so that the Treasury would not need to ask for permission each time it had to issue debt to pay bills.
It is also a drawn-out process. The legislation at issue must sit in committee at least 30 legislative days — days the House is in session — before a petition to push it forward can be submitted. Then it can be brought to the floor only on specially designated days if its sponsors have the required 218 signatures.
Mr. Van Hollen estimates that legislation introduced when Congress returns from recess on April 17 would not reach the point where its backers could even begin collecting signatures on a petition until June 21. It would still have a long way to go after that. The most recent prediction of when the debt ceiling will be breached is sometime between July and September.
Lawmakers also noted that the House speaker can erect many procedural obstacles. For a discharge petition to succeed, they say, it is best if the speaker — in this case, Mr. McCarthy — tacitly wants the legislation to pass or is at least not adamantly opposed. In a crisis situation, as the debt limit endgame is likely to be, a discharge petition might be too cumbersome if the House leaders dug in against it.
“Look, I wouldn’t rule it out,” Representative Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania, the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, said in a recent interview. But he warned that “it is really hard to do.”
“Basically, in real time it works out to about two-and-a-half to three months,” said Mr. Boyle, who in the coming weeks plans to introduce legislation overhauling the debt limit process, allowing the president to raise it unless overridden by Congress. That measure could conceivably provide a basis for a discharge petition, as could other bills.
Yet Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have been publicly resistant to the idea so far, mainly because they want to keep pressure on Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without conditions, as they did several times during the Trump administration without any upheaval.
Mr. McCarthy and other Republican leaders insist they will raise the cap only if Mr. Biden and Democrats agree to spending cuts and other conditions — a demand that they have so far refused.
Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic leader, has steered clear of discharge petition discussions. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said recently that he had no problem with readying a discharge petition but that he anticipates it will not be necessary because Democrats are succeeding in their push to box in Republicans on the issue, forcing a resolution.
Other Democrats privately worry that embracing a discharge petition could backfire politically next year, allowing Republicans to paint them as employing a legislative trick to raise the debt limit over the objections of most Republicans.
More on the Debt Limit
The concept of a discharge petition originated in the early 20th century as a way to circumvent the powerful Republican speaker at the time, Joseph Cannon. The rules have been revised multiple times, including in 1993, to make public a running tally of those who have signed.
While petitions are not often successful, the prospect of one gaining enough support has forced action on major issues such as civil rights, immigration and gun rights.
While Democrats have held back on initiating a petition, the possibility of one has helped calm nerves on Wall Street as bankers survey the potential outcomes of the debt limit struggle.
Many economists at banks and consultancies acknowledged from the start that it was a long shot; Deutsche Bank pointed out that it was “rarely used,” and Morgan Stanley warned that it “may not be viable.”
Still, it was regularly painted as an avenue out of the crisis, if an unlikely one: A discharge petition was “hardly a panacea, but it is in play,” Chris Krueger at the research group TD Cowen wrote in a research note in early January.
But the possibility that it could be at all practical as a workaround is rapidly waning.
“I’ve never thought the discharge petition was nearly as elegant a solution as made out by some,” Mr. Krueger said in an interview. He said he thought at this stage Congress would let negotiations get down to the wire and come to an agreement only when backlash in the news media or the financial markets became severe.
“I don’t think we get into technical default scenarios,” he said, “but I think it’s going to get very uncomfortable.”
Mr. Boyle said the real solution was not a discharge petition but the plan that he and other Democrats supported to remove the regular clashes over the debt limit from the congressional arena.
“We have to structurally change this once and for all, because this is too dangerous a weapon to keep alive in our political system,” he said.
“The future of the Republican Party is more Marjorie Taylor Greene than Mitt Romney,” Mr. Boyle added, naming the far-right congresswoman from Georgia and the more mainstream senator from Utah. “And so if we don’t permanently fix this process now, we’re going to be right back in this in a couple of years — and it might even be worse.”
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