Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy will hold a town hall meeting at the Fox Theater in Bakersfield.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), newly elected Speaker of the House, holds a town hall meeting at the Fox Theater in downtown on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Bakersfield, CA.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Can a Discharge Petition Save Economy From GOP Hostage-Taking Over Debt Ceiling?

The great debt limit game of chicken has begun. How do we stop it.

We knew this was coming.

Last year, there were signals that Congress would have to deal with increasing the debt limit ceiling sometime in the second half of 2023. “Extraordinary measures” could extend that deadline closer to the end of the year.

On Thursday, much earlier than expected, we hit the debt limit ceiling and the Treasury Department began rolling out “extraordinary measures” to pay the government’s bills. According to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the “extraordinary measures” are likely to enable the government to pay its bills only until early June.

A default on our debt would trigger a worldwide financial catastrophe.

The great debt limit game of chicken has begun.

When the GOP held the White House, congressional Republicans had no problem in routinely allowing the debt ceiling to increase. Congress raised the debt ceiling 17 times for President Reagan.

When Barack Obama was President, however, Republicans took the debt ceiling hostage. They allowed it to be increased in 2011 only in return for an agreement by Obama and congressional Democrats for significant cuts in government spending.

As a result of that Republican brinkmanship, the U.S. Treasury debt was stripped of its triple-A rating by Standard & Poor’s — a rating it had held for 70 years.

Today, Republicans control the House by a very narrow margin. The extreme MAGA wing of the House Republicans drives the House Republican Caucus and has enormous influence over Speaker Kevin McCarthy whose position they greatly weakened before giving him the job.

As a result, House Republicans are threatening to block increasing the debt ceiling unless they get outlandish ransoms. Their proposals include slashing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and eliminating at least $130 billion in spending for the next fiscal year, including axing the defense budget by $70 billion.

It’s unlikely that House Republicans will come up with a consensus package of spending cuts to attach to a debt ceiling increase and, even if they do, the package will not be supported by President Biden and the Democrats who control the Senate. The White House has indicated President Biden will not play the role of hostage and will insist on a clean vote on a debt ceiling increase.

So how do we get out of this dangerous situation? The answer may lie with a little-known House rule — the discharge petition.

If a simple majority of House Members sign a petition to discharge a bill from the committee it is in, the bill is brought directly to the House floor for a vote.

While the discharge petition is seldom used, it has on occasion played a critical role, as it did in 2002 when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was brought to the House floor by a discharge petition, overcoming the refusal of Republican leaders to schedule it for a floor vote. The legislation passed the House and went on to be enacted.

It would require just five Republicans to join with 213 Democrats to bypass Speaker McCarthy and the MAGA wing and come up with their own responsible legislative package of budget changes and an increase in the debt ceiling.

The discharge petition would bring the package to the House floor where it could be passed by 218 votes, a majority of the House.

Some House Republicans have already been talking about the discharge petition as an option.

There are 18 Republicans who in 2022 won in congressional districts that were carried by President Biden in 2020. Other Republicans won extremely competitive races last year.

It could have major reelection ramifications for these Members, particularly those in Biden-won districts, if they are deemed responsible for the financial disaster that would occur if the United States defaults on its debts. This could provide a strong incentive for them to negotiate a budget/debt ceiling deal with House Democrats.

The discharge petition — which the MAGA wing could have forced McCarthy to get rid of, but failed to do so — may be the key to a responsible agreement on budget changes and a timely extension of the debt ceiling limit.

Such an agreement would allow the government to continue to pay the money it owes in the United States, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, as well as the payments it owes around the world, and avoid a global financial catastrophe.

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said: “In the end, I think the important thing to remember is that America must never default on its debt. It never has and it never will.”

This is one thing that both Senator McConnell and I can agree on.

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