Freedom First Society

Issue:  S. 540 Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act.  (An unrelated measure coopted to extend the public debt limit.  Originally: A bill to designate the air route traffic control center located in Nashua, New Hampshire, as the “Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center.”)

Result: Passed in House 221 to 201, 10 not voting. Became Public Law No: 113-83 (signed by the President, 2-15-2014).  Democrat selected vote.

Bill Summary:  This measure suspends the debt limit through March 15, 2015 and will set a new limit the following day based on debt increases due to normal borrowing.

Analysis:  Last October (2013), Congress suspended the debt limit, then at $16.7 trillion, until February 7 of 2014, as part of the agreement to end the partial federal shutdown. On February 8, the debt limit was reset to $17.3 trillion. As expected, continued deficit spending immediately pushed the Treasury toward default, and Congress was confronted with administration demands to suspend (or raise) the debt limit once more.

And Congress agreed. However, Congress chose the ending date for this latest temporary suspension of the debt limit to fall well after the November elections, thus passing the buck to a newly elected Congress to bring federal spending under control or to raise the debt ceiling again.

Confrontations over the debt ceiling are not the most promising means to control spending. The appropriation process provides a much better way. The Constitution gives the House complete control of the purse. The House doesn’t have to negotiate with the Senate and the president; all it need do is refuse to provide the money for particular functions and programs (as described by James Madison, the father of the Constitution, in Federalist #58).

Of course, a liberal Senate and president would still pressure the House to cave in, and they would have the help of the Establishment media. To win that battle, the House must pass separate (no omnibus or consolidated) appropriation bills that fund what must be funded but curtail spending for unconstitutional programs.

The House would then need to stand firm on those appropriation bills. A multiplicity of separate bills and topics would make it difficult for the president and Senate to reject them all. But most important, a majority of representatives would need informed support from back home in order to withstand enormous pressure from the media and party leaders.

Accordingly, we don’t see the real obstacle to controlling federal spending as a big-spending Senate or president. It is a House that is not serious about taming the federal monster.

Even without majority support for get-tough action in the House, individual representatives should stand firm against “business as usual.” And the periodic votes on raising the debt limit are one opportunity to stand firm. Before supporting any increase, principled representatives should demand accompanying serious progress toward fiscal and constitutional restraint. Since no such program was in the cards, the correct vote had to be nay.

President Obama had long taken the stand that he would not “bargain” for an increase in borrowing authority, insisting that the increase should be automatic, since it was necessary to finance spending already approved by prior Congresses.   House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed the line: “The full faith and credit (of the United States) should be unquestioned and it is not negotiable.”

Never mind that the spending demands of President Obama himself had contributed to huge deficits, as had the agendas of prior presidents and prior Congresses. Responsible legislators must press for corrective action whenever they have the will and opportunity to do so and before economic reality completely destroys American prosperity and “the full faith and credit (of the United States).”

A “Clean” Debt-Limit Bill

The House acted first to approve S. 540, suspending the debt limit and preventing default.   In the days leading up to the vote, House Speaker John Boehner tried unsuccessfully to find enough GOP support for a debt-ceiling bill sweetened with any of several face-saving concessions to be demanded of the Senate and the president.

So the GOP leadership decided to put forward a “clean,” no-strings-attached debt-ceiling bill that would garner Democratic support.   Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi immediately applauded the GOP decision.

On February 11, only 28 Republicans voted for the measure. Unfortunately, this does not mean that most of the other 199 GOP who voted nay were in any way tough constitutionalists.   So we do not score the House Republicans on this one. (However, we score both the Senate Republicans and the Senate Democrats on their votes on cloture (Senate vote #33), requiring 3/5 for approval.)

The House Democratic vote, on the other hand, was 193 to 2, with 5 not voting. We give credit to the two Democrats (Georgia’s John Barrow and Utah’s Jim Matheson) who voted nay, in opposition to their party majority and leadership.

We have assigned (good vote) to the Nays and (bad vote) to the Yeas. (P = voted present; ? = not voting; blank = not listed on roll call.)

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