The plan — and it is a very stupid plan — onto which Reps. Rohrabacher, Issa, Campbell and Royce have signed regarding the debt limit is to make President Barack Obama do something for which he can be impeached. Issa has completely failed in his strained and quixotic efforts, as Chair of the Governmental Affairs and Oversight Committee, to gin up an impeachable offense on Obama’s part — “Fast and Furious”! “Benghaaaaazi!” — and they’re running out of time. He’s not doing anything impeachable; even his private life (except for the impeachable offense of sneaking smokes at time) is apparently squeaky clean. So they’ve decided to force him to — at least arguably — break the law.
The House Republicans know that Obama will not let the nation default on its obligations — especially for no reason other than that national Republicans think that in the long term it provides them some political gain. They see that strength — that he will ultimately do what has to be done to protect the credit of the United States — as, paradoxically, his weakness. He won’t pay a ransom to take the national economy away from its hostage takers — but he will break down a door, rush in, and break their noses. And, as everyone knows, that can lead to charges of assault and battery, if you’re loony enough to bring them.
The President can cause the nation to honor its debts in one of three sorts of means: (1) accepted legal means, such as signing a bill to that effect; (2) illegal means, such as declaring the legislature illegitimate and decreeing himself imperial powers; and (3) means that are arguably and questionably legal.
He’s not going to do the second of these — and if you think that he is, or that he has already done so, then please tattoo it onto your forehead so everyone knows to avoid you in the decades to come. So, by making the first option — the routinely and until now always ultimately followed opinion — impossible, they seek to force him to adopt the third. And as long as he can do something that’s arguably impeachable, even if (as with Clinton) there is exactly zero chance of a conviction in the Senate, then they can impeach him. (They could impeach him for being a Black Kenyan Muslim Communist, if they wanted to, but it’s better to find something that hasn’t already been debunked. So, some amorphous and dubious “abuse of power” will have to do.)
Before going into how they want to get Obama to act in a way that would be at least arguably illegal, let’s remind ourselves that three different unusual activities involving federal government economics are happening right now. In increasing order of seriousness, these are the sequester, the shutdown, and the prospect of default. The debt ceiling crisis involves the last of these.
The sequester involves Congress having punted on the last budget and agreeing that if they could reach an agreement then everyone would just take a certain across the board percentage cut. Well, not “everyone” everyone — not the military, for example. Mostly, the cuts have come from social programs that Democrats like — which is why this was a stupid deal for Democrats. In fact, as with when California’s state government has shut down in part and the effect mostly hurt the poor and public employees, Republicans have even argued that they like the sequester and want the cuts to stay in effect.
Unfortunately for them, the next round of sequester cuts will largely hit what’s left — the Pentagon. (This is not military pay, but money for defense contracts, which is pretty much the holiest of holies for the non-Paulite Congressional Republicans.) So now they’re serious and want to try yet again to negotiate a “Grand Bargain” — effective cuts to the value of Social Security benefits and possibly Medicaid as well — that if Obama agrees to them will turn my Democratic party into the sort of screaming Carrie-prom night that the Republicans have already become. (That’s fine with the Republicans; they’d appreciate the company.)
So, when you hear that various issues may be postponed for a few months to allow negotiations over broader issues such as the sequester, that will be what it’s about.
The government shutdown simply means that the government, for lack of a budget, no longer has authorization to spend its money on various discretionary programs. (“Discretionary” means “things that we don’t actually have to pay, such as interest on debt and payments for Social Security — which by the way is not an entitlement but an earned pension — and actual entitlements like Medicare.) So, we’re shutting down the Center for Disease Control in the middle of an epidemic, shutting down the National Weather Service at a time of major catastrophic weather events, that sort of thing. This injures everyone — well, again not everyone everyone, as the military and some others are exempt — and undermines both government prestige and confidence.
The government shutdown is pure hostage taking and extortion. Congress — let along one House of Congress, let alone one faction of one party in Congress — is not supposed to do this as a means of getting its way. It busts through important taboos. But it’s happening — and that it busts taboos is actually a source of pride among its perpetrators, by showing their supporters the lengths to which they will go. Obama won’t negotiate with them because it would then allow them to as for whatever they wanted — theoretically up to and including the resignation of Obama, Biden, and every Democrat in Congress and, what the hell, in every state Executive and Legislative office as well — before agreeing to open the government again. At some point, it’s the obligation of a rational and humane political leader is to tell the extortionists to pound sand.
The video that leads off this story, by the way, is one of the least likely viral videos ever. It shows Chris Van Hollen engaging in “parliamentary inquiries” of acting House Chair Jason Chaffetz to drive home the point that under Standing Senate Rules any member of Congress should be allowed to bring the Senate bill reopening the government up to the floor for a vote — except for the fact that the House voted to take away that right regarding government shutdowns, granting it only to the House Majority Leader (currently Eric Cantor.) Van Hollen — a likely future House Democratic Leader and therefore Speaker — beats this horse deeply into the ground, but as it’s unfortunately not a dead horse that is understandable and excusable. (It’s also excusable because in this case “horse” is just a metaphor.) Here’s Van Hollen holding up the standing Senate rule, which I’m sure will cause many of you to flush with emotion.
(Was it good for you too? If we’re talking about this particular rule, yes it was.)
The default would occur if the government no longer had the money to cover even its non-discretionary obligations — including Social Security checks and honoring government bonds, which have historically been considered either the safest in the world or close to it. (This suits China — and others who have been trying to eliminate the dollar as the world’s “reserve currency” in which, among other things, commodities like oil are priced by default — just fine. Even if we dodge this bullet, even coming so close to default will be a major talking point for eliminating the privileged role of the dollar for the foreseeable future. This is not because the dollar isn’t still the most secure currency in the world — but simply because Congressional Republicans — like Ed Royce, to choose a random example — just decided to go ahead and squander that advantage for some temporary political gain. “Shameful” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
That the U.S. is facing default at all is sort of surprising because the dollar is what’s called a “fiat currency.” A dollar does not represent one share of the gold in the Ft. Knox Depository or other such federal government assets, but a share in the government’s promise to pay a dollar’s worth of whatever in exchange for a currency note. That’s why “keeping up appearances” is important. People always get paid what they’re owed — and if they don’t get it, even as a result of a sabotaged political system as opposed to an actually impoverished country — then the faith in the Almighty dollar plummets. What’s the effect of that? The main one to worry about is: we have to pay more interest to get people to buy our bonds. That is, interest rates — the cost of the government’s borrowing, which trickles down to the cost of your borrowing (whether you are a person reading this or a sentient corporation) — go up. More of our money goes to pay interest to creditors rather than into either military or social programs: buying “guns or butter,” as we used to say. It’s just bad for everyone. And we’re looking at doing not out of necessity, but as the attempt of a small political faction — one with a minority of House votes but empowered by gerrymandering — to commit extortion.
The funny thing is that we don’t actually even need to sell government bonds. We don’t need to collect other people’s money and give them interest in return for letting us hold it. We could not only get rid of the debt ceiling entirely — eliminating the threat of extortion — but we could just say that, after we appropriate dollars to a project, it will be paid for either by increased government revenue, by countervailing cuts, or, in the absence of either, by increased inflation. Each dollar becomes worth a little less if we can’t increase the national wealth that backs it up. That sound you heard as I typed those words is that of every banker and other debt-holder — as opposed to debtor — screaming. Inflation eats away at wealth. It also devalues what debtors must pay back. Now, I’m not advocating inflation here — I agree with most economists that a rate of about 1% to 2% a year is probably healthiest — but I’m pointing out that the nation does not have to finance through bonds if need be. We could just buy those bonds up with devalued dollars. It would create big problems, though.
And this brings us back to impeachment. What can Obama do to stop these crazies? One thing he could do is to say “I have an obligation under Section 4 the 14th Amendment to protect the public debt of this country from being questions, and I am therefore instituting the following constitutional dicey emergency measures” — which might including moving the debt limit on his own or eliminating it entirely.
Here’s the text of Amendment 14, Section 4:
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
The first sentence is the one that matters here. “The validity of the public debt … authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” The President, even independent of Congress, is supposed to enforce the Constitution. So, Obama could potentially claim enhanced powers — similar in some ways to what George W. Bush claimed during wartime — to resolve the situation and avoid default on government obligations.
This is controversial — while many scholars think that it can be done, some including UCI Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky has weighed in against it — and Obama’s doing it might well lead to his impeachment.
Another possibility, which I personally like, comes about because Congress at one point passed legislating granting the Secretary of the Treasury the right to mint a coin made of platinum “in any denomination.” (They didn’t have this in mind, but the law says what it says — and that’s usually enough for Justice Scalia.) So, if Obama wanted to have the Treasure Secretary mint such a coin and deposit it with the Federal Reserve for the purpose of financing debt. People keep saying the coin would be “a trillion dollars” but I’d prefer that he make it something like one septillion dollars — that’s a trillion times a trillion — to shut people up for a longer people of time. Now understand that this is, in effect a credit line increase; it is not itself an appropriation of money. If you don’t want to see money appropriated, don’t appropriate it. But the idea of the government even having a credit line is ridiculous to begin with. It can create new money anytime it wants to, limited only by its own will. The same is not true of your own credit line.
So, though he’s made fun of the idea in the past, Obama could indeed order minting of a platinum coin — a power granted to the government in the Constitution itself! — to solve the debt limit crisis and prevent default.
This would also be controversial (and, more important politically, comical) — and if Obama did it he could expect to be impeached.
If impeached on either grounds, he could expect to be acquitted. But the House Republicans would have the distraction and the easily understood issue — a hell of a lot easier than all of this theory of finance — that they wanted. And so that, ultimately, seems to be what they’re trying to arrange.
I implore my Republican friends out there to speak against House Republicans creating such a Constitutional crisis for no reason than a desperate grab for a good political issue. It’s just flat-out wrong.