WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Jack Lew alerted Congress that the nation’s debt ceiling will reach its limit sometime in mid-October, which means that lawmakers must ready themselves for what could be another epic fight. President Obama says he will not negotiate an increase in the debt ceiling, that it’s Congress’ problem. Congress racked up the bills and Congress will have to figure out how to avoid thrusting the nation into default.
If the past is prologue, the budget hawks on Capitol Hill will ignore Obama’s ultimatum unless he is willing to back it up with strong action. Contrary to the notion that raising the debt ceiling is a green light for Obama to spend more money on government programs, the vote on Capitol Hill is needed for the government to pay for the expenditures Congress already passed. Last summer, when Republicans flirted with default, one of the major rating agencies downgraded the U.S. credit rating, causing a deflation of U.S. credit and credibility around the world.
Democrats had urged Obama to invoke the authority asserted in the 14th amendment to the Constitution saying, “the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned.” Obama is a constitutional lawyer, but he backed away from acting on his own to raise the debt limit without congressional approval. Spokesman Jay Carney said at the time that the administration did not believe the 14th amendment gave the president the power to “ignore” the debt ceiling.
That position may be subject to change now that Obama is safely re-elected, and House Republicans show no sign of backing off their intention to hold the administration hostage over the debt ceiling until they get what they want, whether it is additional spending cuts or the defunding of Obamacare. Republicans already are accusing Obama of running a lawless administration because he has relied more on executive orders than legislation to get things done in the face of unyielding congressional opposition.
Republicans are still smarting over Obama unilaterally allowing young people brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal status, a move that is credited with boosting Hispanic turnout for Obama in the 2012 election. The administration is also exerting executive power through the Environmental Protection Agency to curb greenhouse gas emissions, a legitimate use of regulatory authority but one that is opposed by the GOP and their supporters in the business community.
If Obama is already seen by his Republican critics as abusing his presidential powers, he might as well give them something to really get worked up about, and say he intends to rely upon the Constitution for the good of the country to avoid a damaging fight around the raising of the debt ceiling. Who would he offend? There are many mainstream Republicans who would welcome the president providing an exit ramp from a fight that can only hurt the economy, and could backfire on the GOP if the public sees Republicans as the obstructionists.
Obama would have the moral high ground in taking a firm stand against the high jinks that were so damaging for the country and the economy last year. A further downgrading of the nation’s credit — and credibility — would undermine an already pallid recovery and make the administration look weak around the world. A show of strength is the tonic that is available to Obama if he has the courage to reach for it. It’s not his natural inclination to court confrontation, but the country can’t afford another prolonged struggle over the debt ceiling, and the 14th amendment is a nice out. Sure, the Republicans will cry foul, but it is a win-win for them. They can accuse the president is abusing power while secretly reveling in the fact that they no longer have to play the unpopular debt-ceiling card.
U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.