Our political system seems sick. Or, it seems to be broken beyond repair. However one looks at it, our constitutional architecture seems unable to save us from the ravages of a political party gone wild, from politicians with fire in their eyes and torches in their hands.
Yet, this morning I heard a very learned man tell Americans that our system of government was designed to produce—and then fix—what we are seeing today. Jon Meacham, who is among other things a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said on MSNBC that what Tea Party Republicans are doing is not unprecedented—he cited the old “Southern Democratic caucus” that held up civil rights legislation in the U.S. Senate for part of the twentieth century—and in fact what these Republicans are doing has the posthumous blessings of, uh, James Madison, who would say if you don’t like ’em, “vote ’em out.”
Yikes. If James Madison meant to design a system in which a crazed minority of lawmakers on one side of the Capitol could severely damage the economic well-being of the entire country by forcing the government to default on its obligations, then James Madison was a bit crazed himself.
But no matter what one’s view of Madison or the other Founders is, no matter what one thinks of the design of our system of governance, as the National Journal’s Kristin Roberts points out, we fortunately have a very clear instruction in the Constitution, as it was thankfully amended in 1868, about what to do regarding raising the debt ceiling. Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
Have Republicans forgotten that they too must abide by the Constitution?
The document is explicit in its instruction to America’s federally elected officials – make good on the country’s debts. “The validity of the public debt of the United States,” the 14th Amendment states, “shall not be questioned.”
This is not some arcane biblical reference that needs to be translated from scraps of parchment. In fact, its purpose and intent are fairly well documented.
The amendment is the product of a post-Civil War Congress that wanted to be sure the country would not be saddled with Confederate debt, and that the debts of United States would be honored. Then, as now, this promise written into the Constitution offered creditors confidence that lending to America – indeed, investing in America – would be safe.
“Every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress,” argued Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Republican supporter of the amendment.
Some conservatives these days claim that there’s nothing to this debt ceiling business, that Democrats are just trying to scare everyone (never mind that Ronald Reagan tried to scare everyone too). Some, like a very strange senator named Tom Coburn, pull stunts like tearing up a symbolic credit card on the floor of the Senate, saying, “I think it’s time we quit borrowing money,” as if that’s all there is to it. As if not raising the debt ceiling is like taking the credit card from an irresponsible teenager.
Such ignorance, such dangerous ignorance, should not have a home in the brain of a sitting U.S. senator or any public official. But it does. And such ignorance has infected the American people, who, as a new poll demonstrates, are as confused about the debt ceiling as Tom Coburn is. Get this:
More than twice as many Americans believe lifting the limit means authorizing more borrowing “for future expenditures” than believe it means “paying off the debts [the federal government] has already accumulated”—62 percent to 28 percent, respectively.
The reality is that lifting the debt limit allows the Treasury Department to borrow money to pay for bills that Congress has already rung up.
When one looks at the composition of that 62% of Americans who don’t understand how the debt ceiling works, one finds that Republicans are more ignorant than Democrats:
Nearly three in four Republicans, 73 percent, said the debt limit was for “future expenditures,” but a majority of Democrats, 53 percent, also agreed. Independents, at 62 percent, fell in between the two major parties.
Think about that. Three out of every four Republicans you meet on the street don’t have the slightest idea what is going on right now. And half the Democrats don’t either. Scarier than all that, though, is that 54% of Republicans polled think the debt ceiling deadline “can pass without major economic consequences.”
Yep, no big deal. A default here, a default there, and pretty soon the economy will get used to all the chaos and Republicans can go back to the echo chamber and tell themselves how brave they were for calling the bluff of Democrats—and economists.
Kristin Roberts notes the obvious that should President Obama unilaterally raise the debt ceiling without congressional authority, Republicans in the House will impeach him. But she makes another point about impeachment that the President should at least abstractly consider:
…others argue that if the House does nothing, and Obama refuses to step in, impeachment would then indeed be appropriate.
“Obama should be impeached if the Congress allows a default and he does nothing,” said Sean Willenz, a Princeton University history professor who has argued the merits of 14th Amendment action. “The president has taken a solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. If he does not act in response to a blatant violation of the Constitution, then he will have violated his oath, and deserve to be impeached.”
Mr. Obama has said more than once that the Fourteen Amendment option that so many liberals and others are urging him to use is not a viable one as far as he is concerned. And because people should know what the President’s mindset is on this serious matter, I will here post his entire response to a question asked of him on Tuesday during his press conference:
QUESTION: Do you think you might have emergency powers that you could use after any default situation?
We have used a lot of our emergency powers. Jack Lew has used extraordinary measures to keep paying our bills over the last several months. But at a certain point, those emergency powers run out, and the clock is ticking. And I do worry that Republicans, but also some Democrats, may think that we’ve got a bunch of other rabbits in our hat. There comes a point in which, if the Treasury cannot hold auctions to sell Treasury bills, we do not have enough money coming in to pay all our bills on time. It’s very straightforward.
And I know there’s been some discussion, for example, about my powers under the 14th Amendment to go ahead and ignore the debt ceiling law. Setting aside the legal analysis, what matters is, is that if you start having a situation in which there’s legal controversy about the U.S. Treasury’s authority to issue debt, the damage will have been done even if that were constitutional, because people wouldn’t be sure. It would be tied up in litigation for a long time. That’s going to make people nervous.
So a lot of the strategies that people have talked about — well, the President can roll out a big coin, or he can resort to some other constitutional measure — what people ignore is that, ultimately, what matters is what do the people who are buying Treasury bills think?
And, again, I’ll just boil it down in very personal terms. If you’re buying a house and you’re not sure whether the seller has title to the house, you’re going to be pretty nervous about buying it. And at minimum, you’d want a much cheaper price to buy that house because you wouldn’t be sure whether or not you’re going to own it at the end. Most of us would just walk away, because no matter how much we like the house, we’d say to ourselves, the last thing I want is to find out after I’ve bought it that I don’t actually own it.
Well, the same thing is true if I’m buying Treasury bills from the U.S. government. And here I am sitting here — what if there’s a Supreme Court case deciding that these aren’t valid, that these aren’t valid legal instruments obligating the U.S. government to pay me? I’m going to be stressed — which means I may not purchase them. And if I do purchase them, I’m going to ask for a big premium.
So there are no magic bullets here. There’s one simple way of doing it, and that is Congress going ahead and voting. And the fact that right now there are votes, I believe, to go ahead and take this drama off the table should at least be tested. Speaker Boehner keeps on saying he doesn’t have the votes for it, and what I’ve said is, put it on the floor, see what happens, and at minimum, let every member of Congress be on record. Let them vote to keep the government open or not, and they can determine where they stand, and defend that vote to their constituencies. And let them vote on whether or not America should pay its bills or not.
And if, in fact, some of these folks really believe that it’s not that big of a deal, they can vote no, and that will be useful information for voters to have. And if it fails, and we do end up defaulting, I think voters should know exactly who voted not to pay our bills so that they can be responsible for the consequences that come with it.
There. You now know for sure what the President thinks about using extraordinary means to do what the Constitution for sure requires Congress to do, if not the President acting alone.
And, I must say, he is being quite Madisonian about it.