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Congressional Democrats Consider Arcane Procedure to Bypass Debt Ceiling Default

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Apr 10, 2023


Congressional Democrats may have to resort to an obscure procedure to stave off defaulting on the federal debt, The New York Times reported.

The procedure, known as a discharge petition, is a signed demand by a majority of the House of Representatives that can force consideration on the floor of a certain piece of legislation, even if the House speaker doesn't introduce it. The idea is being floated as a workaround to passing an increase to the federal debt limit if House Republican leaders refuse to agree.

The procedure has rarely been used, the last time in 2002. It is also time-consuming and politically difficult, as the move would take control of the House from the leadership, and it would also require at least five members of the majority Republican Party to sign on.

Some Democrats want the process to get underway soon. “I do think it is important to lay the groundwork for a discharge petition because it is a complicated process, so you need to plan ahead—meaning now,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the former top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “Having a backup would be a good strategy and, if necessary, would put pressure on House Republicans.”

Because the legislation must sit in committee for 30 days when the House is in session, then be brought to the floor when it has 218 signatures—and then only on designated days —Van Hollen told the Times that signature collections could not begin until June 21.

Rep. Brendan F. Boyle (D- Penn.), the House Budget Committee ranking member, plans to introduce legislation overhauling the debt limit process by allowing the president to raise it unless overridden by Congress.

“We have to structurally change this [situation] once and for all, because this is too dangerous a weapon to keep alive in our political system,” he said. “If we don’t permanently fix this process now, we’re going to be right back in this in a couple of years—and it might even be worse.”

As for the Democratic leadership, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has not commented on the procedure, while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) would not oppose a discharge petition but believes that it will not be necessary because a resolution is in the offing, the Times reported. It added that other Democrats privately worry about the potentially negative political ramifications of pursuing a discharge petition.

Chris Krueger, managing director of TD Cowen Washington Research Group, told the Times that Congress would come to an agreement in the face of backlash from the news media or the financial markets.

“I don’t think we get into technical default scenarios,” Krueger said, “but I think it’s going to get very uncomfortable.”

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