Last week it was a theory being kicked around on left-wing websites, today it’s evidently the nuclear option in the White House’s arsenal of debt-ceiling weapons. Go figure.
Congress has raised the debt ceiling no fewer than 74 times in the past 50 years, but now, conveniently, it turns out the president’s inherent power under the Fourteenth Amendment may mean it was up to him all along. Again, go figure.
On a conference call with reporters Friday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) acknowledged that President Obama may not need Congressional authorization to avoid a default on the national debt. But he noted, too, that the Constitutional debate on this question isn’t ripe enough yet for Obama to take an end run around Congress, even if Republicans refuse to increase the national borrowing limit.
I asked Schumer, a lawyer, whether, in his view, the administration had the power to continue issuing new debt even if Congress fails to raise the debt limit. He acknowledged that the question’s been discussed, but said the White House probably shouldn’t go there just yet.
“It’s certainly worth exploring,” Schumer said. “I think it needs a little more exploration and study. It’s probably not right to pursue at this point and you wouldn’t want to go ahead and issue the debt and then have the courts reverse it.”
As I said last week when I wrote about this, I’m morbidly curious to see how the public would react if he pulled something radical in the name of staving off economic calamity. He’s already ringing the alarm bell by demanding a deal by July 22, ten days before we hit the ceiling on August 2, in order to avoid frightening international markets. Democratic messaging is ramping up too: Paul Krugman wrote a quintessentially Krugman-esque piece this morning about how those darned wingnuts want to wreck Obama’s presidency on the rocks of economic armageddon. Expect lots more of that after the holiday; given the public’s utter desperation to see the economy improve, the “sky is falling” approach to the debt ceiling is a way more effective line of argument for Democrats than mumbling about corporate jets. And in fact, the sky really might be falling. And yet, if he did pull something like declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional, he’d be seizing control of the country’s apocalyptic debt problem for the purpose of running up more debt. I doubt it would even accomplish what he wanted it to accomplish: If the goal here is to reassure creditors that the U.S. will never default on its obligations in order to avert a market panic and skyrocketing interest rates, how exactly would a power grab involving an utterly novel constitutional theory achieve that? Does a bitter court battle, with the legality of payments issued on Obama’s unilateral order hanging in the balance, sound like a smart way to put investors at ease?
National Journal noted yesterday, seemingly without irony, that if the White House takes up this idea, it would fall to the Office of Legal Counsel to advise Obama on whether it’s constitutional or not. You may remember the OLC from the War Powers debate over Libya, where Obama broke with proper procedure and deliberately sidelined the Office because he knew that its director thought he was violating the WPA by not seeking congressional authorization. Gosh, I wonder what he’ll do this time if he gets the sense that they think the debt ceiling is a matter for the legislature, not the executive. Exit question: Spending cuts vs. tax hikes — what would Reagan do?