Somebody’s missing something in the grueling debt-limit debate; maybe it’s me. On the other hand, maybe it’s not.
I heard and saw President Obama say on July 22nd that he would go it alone to raise the debt ceiling if need be – and in my view that should have put an end to concern that America might default on its debts.
Other people no doubt heard and saw it also; it was nationally televised. But at this point I haven’t seen any discussion of it. Not on cable TV after the press conference, not in Saturday editions of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, or anyplace else, as far as I could see. It’s as though they didn’t see what I saw.
For some time, scholars have said the 14th Amendment empowers the president to bypass Congress and raise the debt ceiling on his own. Bill Clinton said that’s what he would do, given the circumstances.
On the morning of June 22nd, at a town hall meeting at the University of Maryland, Obama, in answer to a question, threw cold water on the idea, saying his attorneys are not convinced the 14th Amendment gives him such authority. He made that statement when it seemed he and Speaker Boehner might be coming to an agreement.
Also on June 22nd, two law professors, in a New York Times op ed, urged Obama to go it alone. The two, Eric A. Posner of the University of Chicago, and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard, wrote:
Mr. Obama needs to make clear that he will act unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling if Congress does not cooperate; if he does so, then we predict that Congress will cooperate by enacting the McConnell plan or a similar fig leaf, and so Mr. Obama will not need to follow through on his threat, and the constitutional crisis will pass…Republicans will be publicly outraged, but privately relieved. They do not want an economic catastrophe; they can avoid violating their no-taxes pledge; and they retain the power to fight the budget battle another day. As for the president, he really has no other choice.
Posner and Vermeule said that even if the 14th Amendment’s “debt provision did not exist, the president would derive authority from his paramount duty to ward off serious threats to the constitutional and economic system.”
By the time of Obama’s press conference, at 6 PM on the 22nd, the deal with Boehner had crashed and the threat of impending default had worsened. The situation, in other words, had changed. One of the last questions asked was this:
“You’ve said that your bottom line has been the big deal; that’s not going to happen. Are you going to be willing to go back to just raising the debt ceiling still?
Obama’s answer, in part: “Well, I think I’ve been consistently saying here in this press room and everywhere that it is very important for us to raise the debt ceiling. We don’t have an option on that. So if that’s the best that Congress can do, then I will sign an extension of the debt ceiling that will take us through 2013.”
He then repeated himself. He said he still hoped a bigger deal might be coming from Congress, “but if they tell me that’s the best they can do, then I will sign an extension that goes to 2013, and I will make the case to the American people that we’ve got to continue going out there and solving this problem…”
As I heard and saw that, the immediate crisis – the threat of default – seemed over, finito.
Except I still haven’t seen it picked up on anywhere.
There’s a simple way to clarify this. It would be for a reporter to ask the White House, did the President mean what he said?