Fiscal Warfare, What Would Lincoln Do
What these men have in common is certainly not political philosophy, party identity or background. Yet, they all understood and embraced the Presidency of the United States as more than what is adumbrated in Article two of the Constitution. They all understood in their own way that the position not only allows, but requires, taking steps that transcended the constitutional limits of their office. It was this understanding of the presidency, not as the highest ranking bureaucrat, but as wearer of the mantle reserved to those charged with the ultimate defense of the nation that elected them to the office.
Before proceeding let me say that I supported Obama in the recent election, not uncritically, but as the best choice of the options available. I have also refuted, even at the loss of a long time friendship, those who personally demeaned or imputed nefarious hidden goals to him. Yet, at this time I see a need to direct that same passion I expressed in his defense to rouse his supporters to reverse a grave error that is about to be made.
President Barack Obama has formally stated this month that if the House of Representatives blocks a bill to increase the debt ceiling that will be reached in the next few weeks, that he will discontinue disbursements for the multitude of programs and projects funded by the federal government by about a third. What is ironic, is that there is expert legal opinion that argues that he is not required to do this, that he has the right to continue to pay the obligations authorized by law.
There is a disconnect in the analysis of this pending standoff that demands correction. It is widely depicted as radical conservatives, "tea party loyalists," who are in opposition to the reasonable left of center President. Unfortunately, this does not provide the most meaningful perspective of what is occurring, as indicated by its ineffectiveness in preventing the slow motion train wreck that we are watching as helpless bystanders.
The more useful analysis is that of an internal rebellion, not unlike what occurred at Fort Sumter a century and half ago, but this time not being met with all appropriate force, but with a verbal tongue lashing. Ignoring the debt ceiling is not denying the House of its constitutional "power of the purse strings" as every reduction can be made prospectively in a budget that they initiate. It is sad for me to say that Barack Obama, in ruling out challenging the validity of the boycott by the Republican House, is acting as the constitutional law professor,which is quite different than the position to which he was elected.
His disagreement with scholars who conclude that the 14th Amendment gives him the legal right to ignore the debt limit is irrelevant. Jefferson's summary purchase of the Louisiana Territory was not authorized by the constitution. He knew it, yet he also knew his actual charge as President, so he signed the contract, and his contemporaries understanding this deeper meaning of the position he held, never even contested his action.
Throughout our history, for reasons both noble and debased, Presidents have transcended the limits of their nominal power. After Jefferson, there was Jackson, who in an action now condemned ignored the ruling of the Supreme court with the words, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" Jumping ahead, in an action now lauded by historians Wikipedia describes, "...as the defeat of France loomed, President Roosevelt bypassed the Neutrality Act by declaring as "surplus" many millions of rounds of American ammunition and obsolescent small arms, and authorizing their shipment to the United Kingdom."
I'm old enough to remember when Harry Truman went against his own political constituency to nationalize the steel industry to end a strike in 1952. His advisors certainly told him that it was probably unconstitutional, as it was, being overruled by a 6 to 3 decision by the Supreme Court; but this did not deter him for a minute. We were at war in Korea, and steel was a vital commodity; so he acted in the nations interest as he saw it. His reading of history told him that doing any less would be an abrogation of his responsibilities.
What Truman, the history book devouring high school graduate knew that Obama, the Constitutional scholar, seems oblivious of, is there is a part of constitutional jurisprudence that he may not have learned in law school. It falls under the rubric of "The Constitution is not a suicide pact." meaning in short, that all of the laws, precedents and rulings of courts are subordinated to the survival of the enterprise which we call The United States of America. And the person who is authorized to exercise such authority is the elected President, when he is doing it for this purpose and none other. And that the members of the Supreme court, when acting as patriots, are charged to defer to such actions.
As a country we are protected from annihilation by military invasion, yet the danger remains of collapse of any of the complex transnational relationships that allow our world to continue along its challenging path. A central one is our economic system, based on intertwining public and private assumptions, one of which being the integrity of American financial obligations. We are now in a position where those representing a minority of American citizens, by their position in a single house of our bicameral federal legislature are threatening to destroy the keystone of this vital international system.
The President of the United States, as of this moment has stated that, unlike his greatest predecessors, he will not go beyond the letter of the law to defeat this threat that has unknowable consequences. If the worst outcome follows from this cutoff of funds, not only will his party share the blame, but he will be known not for his tepid arguments against those who refused to pass the extension, but for being the President who refused to accept the higher responsibility of his position, which is doing everything possible to ensure the survival of his country.
From N.Y. Times, that the ceiling can be ignored:
The 14th Amendment, the Debt Ceiling and a Way Out
and this article.
A Ceiling We Can’t Wish Away
Wikipedia article on history of authorization for increasing national debt.