Opinion

Biden Can End Debt-Ceiling Sabotage Once and for All

During my three decades as a congressional staff member, one of the most tiresome rituals was the periodic tussle between parties on the vote to raise the debt ceiling. The worst offenders were members of the Republican Party — at the time, my party — forever moralizing and invoking the piling of debt on the backs of our children.

The debt-ceiling-vote ritual has become even more tiresome — and dangerous. Republicans like Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, no longer invoke high principle. Mr. McConnell said that the world’s largest economy and global reserve currency are “a hostage worth ransoming.” With a potential default looming, he has been blocking a vote to raise the limit. Yesterday, he said that he will allow an increase in the debt ceiling until December, which would merely set up the nation for a further debt melodrama and another rattling of markets.

No free, constitutional government should provide legal means for its own sabotage. The 14th Amendment offers a way out. It is not only a directive to Congress that it must not vote to default; it also enjoins every officer of the government, including the president, to recognize the sanctity of the nation’s full faith and credit and to take care that it be maintained.

If the debt-limit dysfunction continues, President Biden must direct the Treasury secretary to take the steps required to prevent default.

It’s time to end the charade of the debt-limit vote and stop legislative terrorism on it for all time.

President Ronald Reagan recognized that flirting with debt default was foolish: In 1987 he said that “brinkmanship” from Congress “threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the federal deficit would soar.”

Over his two terms, the debt ceiling was raised over 16 times, a presidential record. Starting in the early 1980s, under Mr. Reagan, federal deficits really began to climb, and the national debt tripled.

But as much as Republicans thundered about the debt, the knife they held at the throat of financial markets was made of rubber. They had no intention of carrying out any threat as long as a Republican was president.

The threat became more serious after the Newt Gingrich revolution. The United States came close to default in 1995 (accompanied by a government shutdown), 2011 (causing a government bond rating downgrade) and 2013 (also bringing a debt downgrade).

See a pattern? In each case, there was a Democrat in the White House. Republicans haven’t been the only party to engage in political gamesmanship on the issue. As Mr. McConnell reminded Mr. Biden in a recent letter, Democrats (including then-Senator Biden) under President George W. Bush opposed raising the debt limit. But Democrats always retreated before the brink. Yet for several years now, many Republicans appear to have convinced themselves that default is no big deal. The facts suggest otherwise.

Most industrialized countries do not face this melodrama. The first debt limit dates to the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This legislation was, and remains, a hangover of the congressional supremacy that prevailed from 1865 until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. What everyone disregarded was that there was already a constitutional provision addressing the debt.

After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment helped establish the terms of the American victory over the Confederacy. Section 4 of that amendment states that “the public debt of the United States, authorized by law,” shall “not be questioned.”

Some may hold that a president invoking it to include bond issuance would violate Congress’s Article I appropriation powers. But the 14h Amendment would require all necessary steps to redeem bonds and issue bonds to replace those being rolled over, as well as uphold the sanctity of bonds in the Social Security and other trust funds. This is hardly a blank-check executive power over appropriations, but it would stave off a credit collapse because of congressional hostage taking.

No president has invoked the 14th Amendment in response to a debt-ceiling vote. But in 2011, when President Barack Obama faced Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling, an ex-president, Bill Clinton, said that, rather than leave the country vulnerable to default, if he were in office, he would raise the debt ceiling using the 14th Amendment “without hesitation and force the courts to stop me.” (Mr. Obama ultimately reached an agreement with Republicans to raise the debt limit and reduce the deficit.)

Admittedly, invoking the 14th Amendment is not an ideal solution. It has never been tested in court. In my estimation, the Supreme Court would likely dismiss a legal objection as a dispute between two branches, and the debt-ceiling vote might go the way of many other conflicting or redundant statutes — something that is on the books but either ignored or treated as hortatory. The situation with this issue is untenable, since Republicans seem to care not about the actual debt so much as about using debt-ceiling crises under Democratic presidents for political advantage.

Why should we take it for granted that constitutional war powers must be so broadly construed that a president has sole authority to start a global nuclear war while appropriation powers are so narrow that the president dare not save the country from financial disaster?

Mr. Biden should use the tools the Constitution provides to protect the country, use the bully pulpit and tell us in a prime-time address why he did it and turn around a public opinion that is often deluded about the debt limit.

Ending once and for all the jury-rigged process of last-minute debt ceiling extensions will remove at least one tool of sabotage from those who would hold the nation hostage.

Mike Lofgren is a former staff member for the House and Senate Budget Committees and the author of “The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.”

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