Sunday, July 31, 2011

The 14th Amendment Blues


The Congressional Progressive Caucus and lots of Democratic candidates and activists have called on President Obama to invoke section 4 of the 14th Amendment to prevent the United States from going into default. New Mexico state Senator Eric Griego summed it up well earlier today when he wrote to constituents that the GOP refusal to negotiate in good faith has left us "teetering dangerously close to losing the full faith and credit of the United States," an unacceptable outcome.
We must put the country’s interests ahead of House Republicans’ insistence on an ideological crusade that takes our country’s future hostage in order to gut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts for millionaires, Big Oil and other corporate special interests.

We expect Republicans in Congress to own up to their responsibility for fostering the conditions that have led our country to this point. But after spending trillions of dollars in Bush tax cuts for millionaires, paying trillions more on the nation’s credit card for two mismanaged wars under President Bush’s watch and having nearly caused another Great Depression by falling asleep at the wheel while big banks sank our economy, their intransigence is callous at best and morally bankrupt at worst.

That is why on Friday I called on the President to invoke the 14th Amendment to use executive order in raising the national debt ceiling immediately. Then let’s get to work cutting subsidies for big oil and tax breaks for the rich so we can create jobs and reduce unemployment because people are hurting and they want to work.

Not so fast, says my old friend "bmaz," an attorney in Phoenix who blogs at Emptywheel. He made a persuasive argument today on Twitter about why this is the wrong tack to take and, while I'm not entirely convinced, the argument was sound enough for me to ask him to summarize it for us at DWT:


-by bmaz

As about everyone knows by now, the great debate is still ongoing on the issue of the debt ceiling. The frustration of those on the left with the intransigence of the Republican Tea Party, coupled with the neutered Democratic Congress, has led many to call for President Obama to immediately "invoke the 14th." The common rallying cry is that legal scholars (usually Jack Balkin is cited), Paul Krugman and various members of Congress have said it is the way to go. But neither Krugman nor the criers in Congress are lawyers, or to the extent they are have no Constitutional background. And Balkin's discussion is relentlessly misrepresented as to what he really has said. "Using the 14th" is a bad meme and here is why.

The Founders, in creating and nurturing our system of governance by and through the Constitution provided separate and distinct branches of government, the Legislative, Executive and Judicial and, further, provided for intentional, established and delineated checks and balances so that power was balanced and not able to be usurped by any one branch tyrannically against the interest of the citizenry. It is summarized by James Madison in Federalist 51 thusly:
First. In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments.
We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other-- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State.

Which must be read in conjunction with Madison in Federalist 47:
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.

This is the essence of the separation of powers and checks and balances thereon that is the very-- root foundation of our American governance. It may be an abstract thing, but it is very real and critical significance. And it is exactly what is at stake when people blithely clamor to "Use the 14th!"

Specifically, one of the most fundamental powers given by the Founders to the Article I branch, Congress, was the "power of the purse." That was accomplished via Article I, Section 8, which provides:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States...


To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

The call to "Use the 14th" is a demand that the President, the embodiment of the Article II Executive Branch, usurp the assigned power of the Article I Congress in relation to "borrow money on the credit of the United States." This power is what lays behind the debt ceiling law to begin with, and why it is presumptively Constitutional. It is Congress' power, not the President's, and "invoking the 14th" means usurping that power. Due to "case and controversy" and "standing" limitations, which would require another treatise to discuss fully, there is literally likely no party that could effectively challenge such a usurpation of power by the Executive Branch and an irretrievable standard set for the future. The fundamental separation and balance of powers between the branches will be altered with a significant shift of power to the Executive Branch.

This is not something to be done lightly or if there is any possible alternative available. Indeed, the only instance in which it could be rationally considered would be if all alternatives were exhausted. That does NOT mean because the GOPTeaers are being mean and selfish. It does NOT mean because you are worried about some ethereal interest rate or stock market fluctuation that may, or may not, substantially occur. It does NOT mean because your party's President and Congressional leadership are terminally lame. That, folks, is just not good enough to carve into the heart of Constitutional Separation of Powers. Sorry.

And for those that are thinking about throwing "experts" such as Jack Balkin in the face of what I have argued, go read them, notably Jack himself, who said before invoking the 14th, first the President would have to prioritize what was paid by existent resources, those that could be liberated and revenues that did still come in:
...certainly payments for future services -- would not count and would have to be sacrificed. This might include, for example, Social Security payments.
Assume, however, that even a prolonged government shutdown does not move Congress to act. Eventually paying only interest and vested obligations will prove unsustainable-- first because tax revenues will decrease as the economy sours, and second, because holders of government debt will conclude that a government that cannot act in a crisis is not trustworthy.

If the president reasonably believes that the public debt will be put in question for either reason, Section 4 comes into play once again. His predicament is caused by the combination of statutes that authorize and limit what he can do: He must pay appropriated monies, but he may not print new currency and he may not float new debt. If this combination of contradictory commands would cause him to violate Section 4, then he has a constitutional duty to treat at least one of the laws as unconstitutional as applied to the current circumstances.

So, contrary to those shouting and clamoring for Obama to "Use the 14th," it is fraught with peril for long term government stability and function, and is not appropriate to consider until much further down the rabbit hole. It is NOT a quick fix panacea to the fact we, as citizens, have negligently, recklessly and wantonly elected blithering corrupt idiots to represent us. There is no such thing as a free lunch; and the "14th option" is not what you think it is.

As a parting thought for consideration, remember when invasion of privacy and civil liberties by the Executive Branch was just a "necessary and temporary response to emergency" to 9/11? Have you gotten any of your privacies and civil liberties back? Well have ya?

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At 7:18 PM, Blogger selise said...

there is a better option. and howie, you are just the man to get the message to the CPC:

At 7:23 PM, Anonymous Mike the Mad Biologist said...

What Selise said: the platinum coin option. There's no constitutional crisis.

At 7:30 PM, Blogger selise said...


right! no constitutional crisis, and as beowulf wrote:

"The US Mint has used coin seigniorage continuously since the Coinage Act of 1792 (in a legal sense, a single $1 trillion platinum coin is the same as trillion $1 coins but with far less expense and effort)."

it's part of our Nation's tradition. what's not to love?

At 8:21 PM, Blogger woid said...

Here's the problem with the shiny platinum coin panacea, as well as the 14th Amendment solution. And it's not about whether they're practical or constitutional:

All of these supposed answers depend on something that Obama "could" or "should" do. And the sad fact is...


At some point during the Bush/Cheney disaster, I realized that every time I read a New York Times editorial, or a progressive blog post, that I basically agreed with, sooner or later one of those words would crop up. The Administration — or the Congress, or the Supreme Court — "should" do something that makes perfect sense.

After a while, I decided that the only rational thing to do is to stop reading at the moment the fateful word "should" pops up.

The tragedy that we're facing now is that Obama has turned out to be Bush/Cheney II. A little better in some areas, even worse in others, but basically the same disaster, even further down the drain.

It's gotten to the point where there are only two views you can take toward Obama. The more charitable one is that he's an inept negotiator who never gets the result he wants. But the worse things get, the more it seems obvious to me that it's option number two that's closer to the truth: He doesn't really want those things at all, and never did. That's the sad conclusion I reached some time ago. It's not that Obama's a inept technocrat, or a clueless Third Way Democrat — it's that he's a corporate-controlled right-winger who conned hundreds of millions of us into believing he was something better, by just plain bullshitting us into electing him.

So when we say (as I did for a long time), "Why doesn't Obama... " or "Obama should... " we're just fooling ourselves even more. He won't. He's getting exactly the outcome his oligarch supporters want. More for them, and fuck the rest of us.

I'm sorry, but I don't see a way out of this. Money and power (same thing) have corrupted our government, and the media too, past the point of no return. I hate feeling this way, but I'm afraid it's the bleak reality of our situation. When the supposed best people we have (Grijalva, Sanders) speak against the new clampdown — and then vote FOR it! — who do you think is going to actually save us?

Our country is well and truly fucked.

At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a later enactment, to the extent that it contradicts prior enactments, the 14th Amendment prevails. If BMAZ feels that this infringes on or usurps a desirable separation of powers,his argument is not with those who would comply with the requirements of the 14th but with those enacted it.

Put another way, having seen how Congress could act to destroy the nations credit, the 14th was enacted to deprive them of that power.


At 9:47 PM, Blogger bmaz said...

Anonymous - First, until options are exhausted, there is no conflict that the Amendment could possibly be said impose priority on. Secondly, the following comment was left on our blog, and I think further countermands your argument:

This is not the time and place for a history essay on the context of Section 4 (“validity of the public debt” clause) of the 14th amendment; instead, let me just point to the so-far-ignored Section 5 of the amendment: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” None of the first dozen amendments to the Constitution had anything like this clause; for the most part, the first dozen limited Congress in what it could enact (think “Congress shall make no law…”). The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress in March 1865 was the first to affirm that Congress had the power to enforce a constitutional right. The 14th amendment repeated that. In short, Section 5 put Congress specifically in charge of making sure of the “validity of the public debt,” and definitely not the president. That was no accident. The Congress that passed the 14th Amendment had zero confidence in the president (Andrew Johnson) in carrying out congressional policy. The last thing they wanted over the winter of 1865-66 was to give Pres. Johnson any more power that he could abuse. But abuse he did and the next House, elected in 1866, impeached him. I’m with Bmaz on this one.

At 10:19 PM, Blogger selise said...

woid, it's not -- yet -- about what obama will or won't do. it's about whether or not any of our representatives (especially members of the CPC) will take a stand and 1) publicly state that this is what the president must do and 2) explain the issue to the citizenry via any and all means available to them (including for history with multiple floor statements).

we need to build pressure, both inside and outside. to have any chance of convincing the WH it's in the president's best interest. (i mean, did nixon really want to establish the epa and osha, or did he do it out of cold political calculation?).

i am in no way suggesting the chances of success are anything other than vanishingly small. but given the stakes involved (and especially the fact that we can expect to see this acted out again and again), i'm not willing to give up, so long as there is anything i can think of to do that i'm physically able to do and that *might* have a non-zero chance of success.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger woid said...

selise —

It's not what Obama SHOULD do, it's what somebody else needs to tell him he MUST do?

Sounds like another form of the same thing to me.

As Digby has been saying for months, it looks like both parties, allegedly far apart over differences, actually had exactly this plan in mind all along: That is, "fight" until the last possible minute, then throw this disastrous agreement at Congress as a ticking time bomb. If they don't vote for it RIGHT NOW, we default! There's no time left for progressives to "take a stand" and "explain," especially to a citizenry that's either not paying attention, or is getting their information through the funhouse mirrors of Fox and the "centrist" media.

I appreciate that what you're hoping for is a rational solution. But we're way past rationality, and deep into sociopathy here. For our side, being reasonable and rational has become a trap that the unprincipled rats on the other side keep springing on us. So here we are again.

I don't like being the Debbie Downer of this thread, but I don't see any grounds for optimism in the foreseeable future.

At 12:11 AM, Blogger selise said...

", it looks like both parties, allegedly far apart over differences, actually had exactly this plan in mind all along"

of course it is.

so what?

i'm not optimistic. in fact, i have very little hope. most days none. but, as galbraith likes say, quoting bill black, quoting william of orange, “it is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.”…-the-fate-of-the-entire-country-is-at-stake/

if you don't want to try to doing anything, that is your choice. i'm sorry obama fooled you, and i'm more sorry that seems to have paralyzed you.

but i have work to do, with what little energy & time i can muster. and replying to you is the only thing you've convinced me is a waste of my time.


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