If Obama invokes the 14th Amendment to avoid default, he might be impeached — but so what?

Part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads as follows: 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. Could President Obama invoke that passage to save the federal government from defaulting on its debts? Hendrik Hertzberg, by way of a comparison with certain problems faced by Abraham Lincoln, PONDERS the situation in which Obama currently finds himself: The President is constitutionally sworn to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” but if he enforces the debt ceiling, established by one law, he cannot meet obligations that other laws command him to fulfill. Nor can he submit to blackmail, lest the Constitution be informally amended to provide that any law, duly passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the President (and, if challenged, upheld by the Supreme Court), may be effectively voided by the action of one faction of one party in one half of the national legislature. And he absolutely cannot permit default, the consequences of which would be global and catastrophic. It is widely said that the Obama Administration has “ruled out” recourse to the fourth section of the Fourteenth Amendment. Not so. In 2011, when the Republicans test-drove their debt-ceiling gambit, Timothy Geithner, then the Secretary of the Treasury, read the section to a breakfast gathering of reporters. A squall ensued; the President calmed it, saying that “lawyers” had advised him that the Fourteenth was not a “winning argument.” Similarly cagey equivocations have been forthcoming this time around. Obama has been careful to keep the option on life support. At his news conference last Tuesday, he noted that there had been some discussion about his powers, under the amendment, to “go ahead and ignore the debt-ceiling law.” He continued: Setting aside the legal analysis, what matters 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. . . . What matters is: what do the people who are buying Treasury bills think? What also matters, of course, is: compared with what? In the end, Obama could have no honorable choice but to invoke the Fourteenth. There is little doubt that he would prevail. The Supreme Court would be unlikely even to consider the matter, since no one would have standing to bring a successful suit: when the government pays its bills, who is damaged? The House Republicans might draw up articles of impeachment, adopt them, and send them to the Senate, where the probability of a conviction would be zero. This would not be a replay of Bill Clinton and the intern. President Clinton was not remotely guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, but he was guilty of something, and that something was sordid. Yet impeachment was what put Clinton on a glide path to his present pinnacle as a wildly popular statesman. President Obama would be guilty only of saving the nation’s economy, and the world’s. It would be all he could do to head off a post-Bloombergian boomlet to somehow get around another amendment, the Twenty-second, and usher him to a...

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Raising the debt ceiling does not increase the national debt, but congressional wrangling over it does

HERE are a few facts some folks seem not to understand: Raising the debt ceiling does not raise the national debt, but fighting over it does. The perverse outcome of the GOP’s 2011 fight over the ceiling was a nearly $19 billion increase in costs to taxpayers over the coming years due to increased borrowing costs stemming from the credit downgrade. Over the 50 years prior to 2011, the cap on borrowing had been raised nearly 80 separate times as necessary to allow the government to continue paying its debts. Nineteen of those hikes came with George W. Bush in the White House. Republican leaders broke that trend and deemed the country’s financial credibility and economic health “a hostage worth ransoming.” But while the GOP negotiating position inherently acknowledges that the debt ceiling must rise, the denial of economic fact promoted by [Rep. John] Fleming [R-Fla.] and other ultra-conservatives seems to have boxed [John] Boehner in politically. He reportedly proposes to force a default unless President Obama adopts the Republican position on essentially every...

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Defaulting on the national debt would be far worse than shutting down the federal government

Ezra Klein COMPARES two looming deadlines facing Congress and finds one more scary than the other: There are two fiscal crack-ups on offer this fall. One is a government shutdown. That’s bad, but it’s not a catastrophe. The other is breaching the debt ceiling. That’s a complete and utter catastrophe. The timeline here is cold and unforgiving: Absent action, the government shutdown will happen at the end of this month. The debt ceiling could collapse as soon as Oct. 18. If the GOP needs to lose a giant showdown in order to empower more realistic voices and move forward, it’s better that showdown happens over a government shutdown then a debt-ceiling breach. A government shutdown is highly visible and dramatic, but it won’t actually destroy the economy. So an “optimistic” case might be that there’s a shutdown for the first few days of October, the GOP gets creamed in public opinion, the hostage-taking strategies of the party’s right flank are discredited, and Washington is at a much better equilibrium by the time the debt ceiling needs to be raised. And yes, I realize that naming that tornado of lunacy the “optimistic” outcome is enough to make anyone pessimistic about the state of American politics. Good. You should be pessimistic about the state of American...

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New poll shows that many Americans still don’t know the real meaning of raising the debt ceiling

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this morning shows that 44 percent of Americans are opposed to raising the federal debt ceiling (see HERE), which comes as no surprise given the political dynamics of the situation. This issue has arisen again with a deadline looming next month, after which the government would default on its debts if the ceiling is not raised. In that event, a fiscal disaster would ensue. But, as was the case the last time we faced this problem, lots of Americans simply don’t understand the fundamentals of the matter. They seem to think that raising the debt ceiling would allow the Obama administration to spend more freely, to come up with more programs that will cost taxpayers ever more money. That myth was  fostered a couple of years ago by irresponsible rhetoric from the likes of House Speaker John Boehner, who warned against giving the president “a blank check.” Boehner knew that term was bogus, but he also knew that it plays well among the boobs who don’t understand the first thing about what the debt ceiling is and how it works. Here’s the real deal: Raising the debt ceiling only allows the government to pay the bills it already has incurred. It does not allow Obama or anyone else to spend even one penny that Congress has not already appropriated. Spending bills emanate from the House of Representatives, which currently is controlled by a Republican majority. Obama simply is not free to conjure new spending programs without specific consent of the House (and concurrence by the Senate). To suggest otherwise is to lie to the American people. And yet, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said this in 2011:  ”We have worked for months to back the President and Congressional Democrats away from their demand for a blank check to keep spending.” Cantor’s intention, of course, was to create the impression that Obama’s request for a hike in the debt ceiling amounts to a request to create new spending programs. In another example of this same kind of dishonesty,  the Republican National Committee launched a fundraising effort in 2011 with a mass-mailing that bore this headline: ”Stop Obama’s Blank Check.” Recepients of the letter were asked to contribute whatever they can spare to the RNC to aid in its efforts to take away that non-existent blank check. The danger in not raising the debt ceiling is that it would result in America defaulting on its financial obligations. The consequences of that would include a lowering of the government’s credit rating and an increase in interest rates, which would make it more difficult for ordinary Americans to buy homes or cars and more difficult for businesses to expand or retool or otherwise take steps to create more jobs. Most Republican politicians understand the truth of this matter. But they also understand that false rhetoric about blank checks for the Obama administration gets the Tea Party troops all excited and more likely to support the Republican cause. They’re playing a cynical...

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Here’s proof that the GOP is the party of debt

The story accompanying the charts above is...

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