Last year, Congressional Republicans exploited an unfortunate quirk in American law to hold the American economy hostage unless President Obama capitulated to rapidly escalating demands for austerity. When the federal budget runs a deficit, Congress must periodically cast a vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling or else the entire nation will be thrust into catastrophe. Had Republicans carried through on their threat to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, it likely would have dealt an even sharper blow to the U.S. economy than the worst part of the Great Recession that began in 2008.
At a meeting with reporters late last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) embraced a plan to make sure this kind of hostage taking can never happen again — declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional:
At a lunch roundtable with columnists earlier today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged President Barack Obama to avoid a new debt-ceiling showdown by stating that a statutory borrowing limit is inconsistent with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”
She at first referred to this possibility obliquely while making a larger point about the lack of cooperative spirit between the Republican Party and the Obama administration but clarified her stance in response to further questions saying, “I would like to see the Constitution used to protect the country’s full faith and credit.” She didn’t offer a legal argument in favor of the position but argued on policy grounds that “you cannot put the country through the uncertainty” again, noting that America’s sovereign debt was downgraded by ratings agencies in the wake of the standoff even though it was successfully resolved.
Pelosi’s constitutional solution to the debt ceiling time bomb is not a new suggestion. Several senators proposed President Obama invoke the Fourteenth Amendment and disarm this time bomb during the GOP-led crisis last year — although Obama himself often showed rhetorical reluctance to turn to the Fourteenth Amendment.
If the American people choose to elect Obama to a second term, however, their decision may become utterly meaningless unless the White House executes some plan to take the debt ceiling off the table for good. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has already warned that he will use the debt ceiling to take America hostage again in 2013, once again forcing a choice between a sudden economic collapse or a slow bleed due to austerity.
In other words, McConnell’s plan is to ensure that, no matter who wins the 2012 election, Republicans will get to set our nation’s policy. If America is to remain a democracy, eliminating the debt ceiling time bomb needs to be a top priority.