Tom Campbell: The House Problem Solvers Caucus can help avoid debt ceiling calamity

Congress is sharply divided along political lines. On any given issue, however, there is often a large majority of each house that favors a particular solution to a problem. Even so, a bill presenting that solution might not be allowed a vote.  Speakers of the House of both parties have refused to allow a bill to come to a vote on the House floor unless a majority of their party favors the bill. Majority rule has thus deteriorated into control by the 25% most right or left members of Congress, from the safest districts.

Into this breach, the House Problem Solvers Caucus (supported by the No Labels national organization) has stepped forward. Thirty-one Republicans and 32 Democrats comprise this group. They have offered a common-sense solution to the present debt ceiling deadlock. On behalf of “the rest of us,” those more concerned with good outcomes than partisan victories, the Problem Solvers’ solution should be allowed to succeed. Here’s how it can.

The Problem Solvers have harnessed the annual budget process to resolving the debt limit fight.  The annual expiration of appropriation bills on October 1 brings serious consequences. The Constitution requires “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” Once the money appropriated for a government program from a previous year has been spent, another appropriations bill must be enacted or that government program ceases. Social Security is not affected because it is on permanent appropriation, but the military and all other “discretionary” spending is not.

This kind of government shut-down actually occurred ten years ago, when Sen. Cruz held back appropriation bills for sixteen days to protest the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

The Problem Solvers propose a temporary extension of the debt ceiling to the end of the year. They call for the creation of a bipartisan commission of experts, not congressmembers, who would create a package of long-term budget solutions, to be presented as a whole without allowing for amendment. That is the process that worked in 1983 to avert bankruptcy for Social Security and Medicare. Democrats did not want to postpone the vesting age for these entitlements; Republicans did not want to increase the federal tax for those programs. The commission’s eventual package included both, and a majority of Congress approved it, since it was the only solution being offered.

To approve the Problem Solvers’ compromise today, an unusual procedural step is available to get around the normal practice that bars any vote from getting to the floor without a majority of the majority party’s support. Five of the 31 Republican Problem Solver Congressmembers need to join the Democrats in the House in signing a discharge petition.

This procedure actually worked in 1999, when I was in Congress. Along with other moderate Republicans, and almost all the Democrats, I participated in a discharge petition signed by more than half the members of the House. That compelled Speaker Newt Gingrich to allow a vote on campaign finance reform.

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Republican Problem Solvers can expect some partisan criticism for signing. I certainly did. However, they would hold a strong hand. The Democrats’ discharge petition includes only the debt ceiling extension. The Republican Problem Solvers could insist it include the Commission element as well, or they would remove their signatures from the petition. Once a “discharged” bill is headed to the House Floor anyway, the Speaker can offer to allow a different version, including the Commission element, to be considered through the Rules Committee, and he would certainly do so.

Extreme partisanship has caused a breakdown in our country’s governance. However, we can take heart that just a handful of responsible members of Congress can still overcome the most pernicious effects of this polarization.  The discharge petition, and an independent commission to work out sensible solutions neither party would adopt alone, are vehicles to accomplish that end.

Tom Campbell was a five-term U.S. congressman, California state senator, and California director of finance. He is a professor of law and a professor of economics at Chapman University. He left the Republican party in 2016 and is in the process of forming a new political party in California, the Common Sense Party.

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