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Monday, March 22, 2010

Developing Debt-Limit Legislation: The House’s “Gephardt Rule”

Bill Heniff Jr.
Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process

The amount of money the federal government is allowed to borrow generally is subject to a statutory limit. From time to time, Congress and the President enact legislation to adjust this limit. 

The House may develop debt-limit legislation under House Rule XXVIII, commonly referred to as the Gephardt rule, named after its author, former Representative Richard Gephardt. The rule, which was established by P.L. 96-78 and first applied in calendar year 1980, provides for the automatic engrossment and transmittal to the Senate of a joint resolution changing the public debt limit, upon the adoption by Congress of the budget resolution, thereby avoiding a separate vote in the House on the public debt-limit legislation. The Senate has no comparable procedure; if it chooses to consider a House-passed joint resolution, it does so under the regular legislative process. 

The House also may develop and consider debt-limit legislation without resorting to the Gephardt rule, either as freestanding legislation, as part of another measure, or as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Of the 47 public-debt limit changes enacted into law during the period 1980 to the present (March 18, 2010), 32 were enacted without resorting to the Gephardt rule. 

In 11 of the 30 years since the Gephardt rule was established, the rule did not apply, due to its suspension or repeal by the House (calendar years 1988, 1990-1991, 1994-1997, and 1999-2002). In most cases, the House suspended the rule because legislation changing the statutory limit was not necessary; at the time, the existing public debt limit was expected to be sufficient. 

During the remaining 19 years, when the rule was in effect, the House originated 20 joint resolutions under this procedure; 15 were signed into law. The first seven of these 20 joint resolutions were generated under the Gephardt rule in its original form. The rule was modified in 1983; the current rule is substantively the same as the 1983 form of the rule. The subsequent 13 joint resolutions were generated under this modified language. In three years (calendar years 1998, 2004, and 2006), the House and Senate did not agree to a conference report on the budget resolution and therefore the automatic engrossment process under the Gephardt rule was not used. 

The Senate passed 16 of the 20 joint resolutions automatically engrossed pursuant to the Gephardt rule, passing 10 without amendment and six with amendments. Only one of these 16 joint resolutions was not signed into law. Of the remaining four joint resolutions, the Senate began consideration on one but came to no resolution on it, and took no action on three.

Date of Report: March 18, 2010
Number of Pages: 12
Order Number: RL31913
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