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New York Times Opinion Piece Ignores Politics of Debt Ceiling Fight
A response to Michael W. McConnell
The debt ceiling is a source of immense controversy and political fighting. The question of whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, meaning to allow the government to borrow more money, has been a sticky and sometimes downright frustrating exercise. Even among Democrats. With that controversy comes various takes that intrigue and boggle the mind. And that was exactly what I saw in The New York Times when I read Michael W. McConnel’s piece on the debt ceiling.
The piece, titled Ignoring the Debt Ceiling Would be Dangerous (2023), argues that the President has no right to suspend the debt ceiling and that Biden should negotiate with Congress to address the dangers associated with a default on our debt.
While on its face, this proposition sounds reasonable and fair, there is a lot that McConnell ignores here. Starting off his article, McConnell argues:
President Biden is playing a dangerous game. When the federal government’s deficit spending is about to exceed the amount Congress has authorized it to borrow and the Treasury has run out of what are known as extraordinary measures to stave off disaster, Congress and the president must negotiate a compromise resolution, or the nation faces the prospect of default.
The House of Representatives has already passed a bill that would raise the nation’s debt limit by $1.5 trillion, coupled with proposed spending cuts, and its Republican leaders have signaled a willingness to negotiate. Mr. Biden instead has demanded that Congress raise the debt ceiling without conditions.
But the House Republicans’ insistence on negotiations and compromise is not hostage taking. It is the ordinary stuff of politics. The two sides can posture all they want, but in the end, Congress and the president have to reach an agreement. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. The Constitution does not permit a unilateral solution on either side.
McConnell’s framing here is, at best, flawed and, at worst, deceptive. While it is true that Congress has the power of the purse and has since the Constitution was written, that does not make the political battles over applying that power any less important.
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Pointing to a supposed deal to raise the debt ceiling, McConnell argues that House Republicans are not engaging in “hostage-taking” and that it is merely “the ordinary stuff of politics.” This argument conveniently ignores how the President can also engage in politics regarding governance while giving undue deference to the House GOP.
Nowhere in the article that McConnell cites does the GOP plan going forward get mentioned in serious detail.All that is mentioned is that Republicans are calling for “…. an increase in the borrowing limit be accompanied by spending cuts and other cost savings.” Not exactly the most detailed analysis of the fight going on in the hall of government now, is it?
Continuing on, McConnell writes:
Begin with constitutional basics. Article I, Section 8 lists the powers of Congress. The first clause of Section 8 provides that Congress may “lay and collect taxes.” The second clause provides that Congress has the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” These clauses are absolute. The executive branch cannot impose taxes or borrow funds on its own authority. Together with the power over spending, these powers are known as the power of the purse, which belongs entirely to the legislative branch.
These provisions have pride of place among Congress’s powers for a reason. Before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the English Civil War, the Stuart monarchs asserted the power to tax and to borrow without parliamentary approval, which effectively meant the power to rule without Parliament. The result was not just autocratic rule at home but also periodic defaults on the royal debt, astronomical interest rates for government borrowing and ultimately civil war. Our framers did not wish to recreate the Stuart monarchy, and the first two clauses of Section 8 reflect that aversion. The power of the purse may be the most fundamental element in our system of checks and balances.
The debt limit is nothing more than an authorization from Congress to borrow a certain amount, up to a certain limit. The debt ceiling is not a restriction on what would otherwise be the president’s ability to borrow; it is an authorization for the executive branch to borrow up to that ceiling. Above that, the president may not go.
Nonetheless, Mr. Biden’s advisers reportedly are contemplating violating the congressional debt limit based on a far-fetched interpretation of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment propounded by some academics. Previous administrations have flirted with this idea, but all have rejected it. Mr. Biden should do the same. It would twist the words of the 14th Amendment, ignore its history and send the markets into turmoil.
Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, enacted in the wake of the Civil War, says: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” The immediate purpose was to prevent future Congresses (if controlled by pro-Confederate Democrats) from repudiating pension obligations and other debts incurred to win the Civil War. No doubt it applies beyond those narrow circumstances. But by its terms it does not authorize the president to borrow more money in violation of Article I, Section 8, Clause 2. Nor does it authorize the president to impose taxes in violation of Article I, Section 8, Clause 1. By its terms, it does not augment the president’s powers one iota.
Insofar as I can see it, McConnell's analysis has been almost entirely focused on the legal side of the debt ceiling, with the occasional jab at President Biden, but is almost entirely devoid of an examination of what the Republicans are asking for. Much less what type of spending cuts the House GOP demands in the first place.
If he had mentioned any of the effects of the GOP spending cuts, he would have inevitably had to reckon with an analysis by CNN which showed that GOP proposed cuts could result in “shutting down 125 air traffic control towers, slashing nutrition services for 1 million senior citizens and eliminating affordable housing assistance for close to 1.1 million families..”
Even when it comes to improving the amount of revenue the federal government takes in, Republicans have refused to budge, rejecting a proposal by the White House to close tax loopholes.To be fair, McConnell published his article before the Post reported on the refusal by the Republicans to work on tax loopholes, but it is indicative of the larger context that is missing from this piece.
Finishing his response, McConnell argues that:
Mr. Biden has only one real choice if he wishes to avoid default: He has to negotiate with Congress, the branch of the government with authority over borrowing and spending. If that means agreeing to spending reductions, that is hardly a disaster. That is what previous presidents have done; indeed, as vice president, he negotiated just such a deal between President Barack Obama and Congress. The idea that the 14th Amendment gives the president unilateral power to borrow is dangerous nonsense.
It would be one thing to object solely to potential abuses of power by the executive branch or even theoretical abuses. But arguing this position without acknowledging the policy moves by the GOP that would push the president to a more defensive position does nothing to explain or accurately depict the current debt crisis.
If there is to be an honest conversation about the debt ceiling, it can’t be a constitutional debate alone. Policy and political decisions must be and always will be, central to the public’s view of ongoing controversies.
Josh Marshall, “No Revisionist History on a Lame Duck Debt Ceiling Vote,” TPM – Talking Points Memo, May 15, 2023, accessed May 15, 2023, https://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/no-revisionist-history-on-a-lame-duck-debt-ceiling-vote.
Michael W. McConnell, “Opinion | The Case for Violating the Debt Limit Is Dangerous Nonsense,” The New York Times, May 14, 2023, sec. Opinion, accessed May 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/14/opinion/debt-limit-constitution.html.
Alan Rappeport, “Everything You Need to Know About the Debt Ceiling,” The New York Times, May 2, 2023, sec. Business, accessed May 15, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/02/business/economy/us-debt-ceiling.html.
Tami Luhby Lobosco Katie, “Here’s What’s in the House GOP Debt Limit Bill | CNN Politics,” CNN, April 20, 2023, accessed May 15, 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/04/20/politics/what-is-in-house-debt-ceiling-bill/index.html.
Jeff Stein, “GOP Rejected White House Effort to Close Tax Loopholes in Debt Ceiling Talks,” Washington Post, May 15, 2023, accessed May 15, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/05/15/debt-ceiling-negotiations-deadline-default/.