Baby steps

House lifts debt ceiling for three months, but also picks a new fight with the Senate

The November election results left Republicans a bit chastened, though that has been difficult to detect in the language and negotiating strategies demonstrated since Barack Obama won re-election, the GOP lost seats in the House and Democrats maintained control of the U.S. Senate. Wednesday’s vote to extend the debt ceiling limit for three months, though, was one clear sign that the House has grasped a concept obvious to most of us: Obstructionism is not a sustainable governing tactic.

The vote, which Senate leadership is expected to affirm, will allow the United States to exceed its current debt limit so that it can meet the payment obligations it has already made. It is a big deal in some ways – particularly to those expecting the forthcoming payments – but less than first blush might suggest.

The expenditures have already been approved by Congress; exceeding the debt limit is necessary to access the money that lawmakers have already decided they will spend. But if Congress refused to allow that ceiling to be lifted, the bills would not be paid and there could ensue global repercussions linked to uncertainty about the United States’ worthiness as an investment – all for what amounts to not putting stamps on the envelopes that contain payments.

It was, however, a politically relevant vote for it revealed a recognition among Republicans that holding the debt limit hostage during discussion concerning larger issues, such as the federal budget and deficit, is the sort of gamesmanship that most Americans are finding increasingly tiresome and unproductive.

The vote did not come without some bold statements, though. In an effort to shift the blame for the lingering debt-deficit impasse to the Senate, the House measure approved on Wednesday included a provision that would suspend pay for members of Congress until a budget is passed. This is significant because the Senate has refused to pass a budget during the last four years. While that is true, the distance between the two chambers’ ideologies and the budgets those respective positions would have produced was so vast as to make reconciliation a task so formidable as to be impossible. The House would now like to blame the Senate for obstructionism, which technically is accurate, but the political nuances should not be lost in the offing.

Withholding pay is not the answer, nor is pointing fingers. It amounts to little more than bluster, though, if the 27th Amendment has anything to say about the pay-withholding proposal. That provision, ratified in 1992, says, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the senators and representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.” Oh well, the position was staked nonetheless.

The good news in Wednesday’s House vote is that yet another entrenched battle has been forestalled – for now. That may seem like little movement, but given the absolute dearth of action seen in the last Congress, it is a comparative marathon. How that momentum builds or is quashed will provide the true test of the election’s significance to the Republican Party.