Why dysfunction is crucial to the workings of the American republic

While some democrats in congress have urged Obama to evoke the 14th Amendment, it is clear that checks and balances retain the constitution's position as the only winner in the debt ceiling debate.

Is the constitution the only winner?
Ewan Watt
On 1 August 2011 17:03

During the back and forth between conservative and liberal commentators on the July 24th edition of ‘Meet The Press’, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin claimed that President Obama was “speaking to where the majority of the country is” in dealing with the debt ceiling negotiations.

Such a deal, according to Goodwin, would have to exemplify “fairness” and show a “combination of cuts and revenue increases.” That is, calls to hike taxes and protect near-bankrupt entitlement programmes.   

But that wasn’t the real kicker.

Goodwin lamented the absence of any “passionate centrists,” citing Teddy Roosevelt, who, when faced with the prospect of fighting for Congressional approval, would gallop roughshod over the checks and balances and ignore the legislature. At a time when the executive and legislative branches have been struggling to negotiate a resolution regarding the debt ceiling, invoking Roosevelt was somewhat of a surprise.  But then again, there is an emerging trend here.  

This year represents the first time in Obama’s presidency where he hasn’t had to deal with a largely supine legislature. Like some of his predecessors, Obama is – much to his chagrin – quickly discovering how the checks and balances work.

Whereas one could make the argument that divided government actually saved Clinton’s presidency, some Democrats in Congress – happy to abdicate their constitutional responsibilities – have called on the President to brush Republican objections aside and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally, invoking the 14th Amendment.    

The 14th Amendment stipulates that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.”  To some on the left this reads that the President can simply order the Treasury to start borrowing without Congressional approval. This, of course, is simply claptrap.    

In the same section it reads “The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” The Congress – and only the Congress – has the power to “pay the debts” of the country.  

To say that the 14th Amendment empowers the president is therefore either a great display of constitutional ignorance, or simply another power grab by the executive through the complicity of some members of Congress.   

These murmurs come from the fact that White House and Senate Democrats painted themselves into a corner by refusing to offer their own comprehensive debt reduction plan, and then finally unveiling a proposal riddled with budgetary gimmicks. Indeed, it’s somewhat amusing that throughout this debate, the press repeatedly scolded the GOP when they sent three plans to the upper chamber, whereas the Democratic-controlled Senate has failed to pass a budget for nearly two and a half years.

Any individual who really believes a balanced budget amendment would pass the Senate with a two-thirds majority, before being signed and ratified, seriously needs their head checked.  

And yet while the Tea Party has been severely criticized for using the debt ceiling as a vehicle to deal with America’s budgetary woes, without their action Congress would never have started to deal with the looming fiscal catastrophe. Had we observed yet another “clean vote” to raise the debt ceiling, the deficit issue would have been dealt with in the next Congress. For this, the Tea Party should be commended.  

Of course, had the President attempted to put a plan such as Simpson-Bowles through the legislature earlier this year rather than kicking the can farther down the road, he may well have avoided this debate entirely.  

It was only on July 25 that the president sought to seize back the momentum through making a speech that would establish himself as the faithful negotiator rather than the partisan demagogue he has become.    

In fact, leading up to the President’s speech, a group of conservative and libertarian journalists on Twitter joked about the likely contents -- a game of Obama bogeymen bingo -- ranging from “oil and gas companies” to “hedge fund managers,” and from "the Bush administration" to “corporate jets”.

What started out being an amusing drinking game actually ended up being an awkwardly prescient summary. Obama has become a parody of himself and given the platform, has repeatedly fallen short not just of expectations, but of his office before resorting to cock a snook at Republicans, taunting them via the social network; presidential leadership through 140 characters.   

The debt ceiling debate is not just a reminder of America’s perilous budgetary position, but also of its checks and balances. The last two holders of the presidency have enjoyed nearly uninterrupted party control over the legislature, creating the conditions that have only further empowered the executive and set America on its current perilous economic trajectory.  

For those such as Goodwin, the failure to agree a “centrist” (read Democratic) compromise is merely another example of the left’s continued discomfort with checks and balances and how they prevent the president from passing legislation and making the system “work.” But this entire debate has reminded Americans just how critical diffusing power is to the republic.    

People clearly want compromise, but those who are now calling on the President to tear up the constitution and announce a debt ceiling hike have never answered the GOP’s perennial question:  What are we meant to compromise with? The Democratic strategy of waiting out the clock so they can accuse the GOP of attempting to cut grandma’s Medicare or quite literally throw her off a cliff, has seriously backfired.

A deal is now close, but this entire debacle could have been avoided had the president demonstrated the kind of leadership befitting of his office. For the first time people are questioning not just President Obama’s governing strategy, but whether he has a strategy to govern.  

Obama may well come out of this debate empty handed because apart from petty name-calling, he’s been entirely unarmed. He has attempted to sit out of the debate, barking absurd orders from the comfort of the Oval Office before throwing his Congressional lackeys over the top towards the well-equipped, entrenched Republican frontline.   

As ever in Washington, people will look for winners and losers in this debate. The answer is pretty simple: the constitution.

Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based public affairs consultant.  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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