Later today the House is to vote on HR 325, a bill to suspend the debt limit until mid-May and then the debt limit will automatically be increased by the new debt incurred during the interim.* The idea is to take away the notion of defaulting and then move toward normal order budgeting (Senate and House do their thing, including instructions to committees for things like tax reform, health policy, etc.) and then they bang it out in a conference committee(s). Just a few thoughts:

  • Normal order (House and Senate doing their thing and having conferences) really stopped with the release of the Simpson-Bowles plan in Decmeber, 2010. Recall that if it had gotten 14 of 18 votes that it was to get an up or down vote in both Houses, so already that wasn’t normal order.You could say POTUS walked away from his own commission (I said it was a mistake in my book, namely because the Fiscal Commission assumed the implementation of the ACA), or you could say that Republicans (and Bernie Sanders) filibustered the initial proposal to create such a commission (aka Conrad-Gregg Commission) within the Congress (no one seems to remember this). My main point is that once you had a big commission and the promise of an up or down vote triggered by certain levels of passage, that was the end of normal order.
  • Then we had the debt limit fight of July/August 2011. No way there was going to be normal order while that typically political stunt event (party out of power laments debt increase, but a few vote for it if needed) was turned into some pledging to default, etc. for leverage. That was resolved by setting up a Super Committee that was supposed to either undo the Sequester with a Grand Bargain, or let the Sequester (that was designed to be mutually hated) move forward. No way there was going to be normal order while Super Committee was meeting; it sucked all the policy oxygen out of the room.
  • Then it was an election year, and the sun-setting of the taxes and the Sequester (together the fiscal cliff) and so there was no hope of normal order given those two things. There was even less hope of normal order when you had the administration moving to implement the ACA and Republicans saying if you elect us (House + Senate + Gov Romney) we will repeal the ACA.

That is how the last two years were ‘not normally ordered.’ Now there is a reasonable chance for a return to normal order and I generally think that is good thing. The area in most need of clarity is health policy, especially with House Republicans saying they will have a budget that will balance in 10 years (last Spring’s took 30). If they go ahead and embrace the higher tax baseline it will make it a bit easier, but they sure won’t be able to have a Medicare policy that says we have all these great things that will start in 10 years. Should be interesting.

In the drive for a sustainable budget, the Democratic party is far more reality based than are the Republicans for two reasons. First, they realize it will take higher taxes to fund any vaguely palatable level of spending as the Baby Boomers move into Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Second, they have a health reform plan that is flexible, meaning it allows for mid course corrections, additions, etc. Republicans say they want lower taxes, and still don’t have a coherent health reform approach even for a higher level of taxation, much less for one lower one. Normal order should make this a bit clearer.

*This approach has the effect of allowing the debt limit to increase without anyone ever voting for an explicit amount. This is actually a reasonable way to do this forever. It is better to fight it out via budgeting/appropriation process rather than after the fact.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Don Taylor

Don Taylor is an associate professor of public policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy.