Ezra Klein isn’t excited about the prospects of President Obama simply sweeping the debt ceiling aside and claiming that imposing legal limits on the government’s ability to issue bonds is unconstitutional.
“The market hasn’t been caught by surprise and forced to dramatically reassess its confidence that this will ultimately be resolved,” he writes, so “now’s not the time to overturn the chess board.”
Jon Chait disagrees but agrees:
Now? Who said anything about now? I think Obama should try the Constitutional/Zeitlin Option if we’re approaching the debt ceiling and there’s no deal — i.e., in circumstances when we’d be looking at a bond market freakout anyway.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but I do think it’s worth dwelling on the dire long-term implications of reaching any kind of compromise on this issue. Historically, the debt ceiling vote has been pure kabuki, an opportunity for opposition party politicians to say mean things about the incumbent president. That’s what Barack Obama was doing when he voted against the debt ceiling. He wasn’t trying to get President Bush to do anything, he was just seizing the chance to do some grandstanding. John Boehner’s notion that there should be actual policy concessions is a game-changer, and any compromise that’s agreed to at this point will legitimize Boehner’s move.
Once that happens, we’re really in a lot of trouble. It’s one thing to play chicken with your friend once. But the debt ceiling is an issue that keeps coming up again and again and again. And once it transforms from a meaningless bit of political theater into a high-stakes game of chicken, we really only have three options. Either at some point congress will do the right thing and scrap the idea, or else the country will enter some form of default, or else some president will exercise the constitutional option. Note that thanks to the intersection of the debt ceiling with the filibuster, the kind of hostage-taking that’s currently being legitimated can occur in all kinds of political climates. As it happens, nobody’s ever tried to filibuster a debt ceiling increase. But that’s because nobody’s previously made a serious effort to use the debt ceiling to extract policy concessions. Once it turns out that you can get concessions, there’s no reason to expect hostage-taking to be limited to legislative majorities.
[UPDATE] Chait, to be fair, says as much (“If Obama succeeds in making the debt ceiling vote meaningless — that is, putting the U.S. in line with every other country in not requiring a separate vote to authorize the paying of already-incurred debt — then we defuse the bomb forever”) but my point here is that exercising the constitutional option is probably the best solution here on the merits, not just something that should be considered if it’s impossible to reach a compromise.