Some Democrats want the president to raise it by himself. But the 14th amendment offers him a much better strategy.
As the country nears the fiscal cliff, it's deja vu all over again. Republicans are now asserting that they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling if they don't get their way in the negotiations. In response, some Democrats want President Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally. What they don't understand is that doing so is not only legally dicey, it is also completely unnecessary for Obama to prevail. Obama's correct--and constitutional--response to Republican intransigence is the same as Bill Clinton's before him: a replay of the 1995 government shutdown. If Republicans force that confrontation, they will lose, just as they did before.
Republicans are in a pretty poor bargaining position in the fiscal cliff negotiations. They know that if President Obama simply does nothing, the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1st and defense spending will be cut. At that point Obama can propose lowering taxes for the middle class--but not the rich--and raising defense spending as part of new grand bargain on taxes and spending. The Republicans will be hard pressed to say no. After all, if they refuse to play ball, all they will get is higher taxes and cuts to defense. That's not winning.
As a result, House Speaker John Boehner has tried to return to the same strategy he used in the summer of 2011. He wants to tie the debate over taxes and spending to an increase in the debt ceiling. It's important to understand that raising the debt ceiling does not increase spending by itself. It merely allows the Treasury to issue new government bonds to pay for monies that Congress has already appropriated by law. Essentially, refusing to raise the debt ceiling after you've already appropriated expenditures is like telling your creditors that you won't pay debts you've already contracted because you have conveniently decided to run out of money.
The government is on course to reach the current cap on the debt ceiling of approximately 16.4 trillion dollars in February or March of 2013. The Republicans' threat is the same as they made in 2011. Unless President Obama agrees to spending cuts and tax policies the Republicans like, they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling and the United States will go into default.
In response, President Obama has made two statements. First, he has made clear that he will refuse to bargain over the debt ceiling with Republicans. (After all, until 2011, the debt ceiling was raised regularly and without much controversy in both Democratic and Republican administrations.) Second, Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, has explained that the president believes he does not have the authority to increase the debt limit and issue new bonds unilaterally.
Some Democrats are concerned: they believe that the president should threaten to raise the debt ceiling and that he has thrown away his most effective weapon in the confrontation.
They are wrong.
Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that "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." Its purpose was to prevent Southern Congressmen and Senators from trying to hold payment of the nation's debts hostage in order to get their way on Reconstruction policies. The point of Section 4 was to put this sort of hostage-taking beyond ordinary politics. The framers of the 14th amendment did not want future politicians to threaten to destroy the country's finances by refusing to pay the country's debts in order to win political concessions from their opponents. After all, once politicians did so successfully, they would try it over and over again and it would become a normal feature of politics. That is precisely what we are seeing now.
If Congressional Republicans are threatening to let the nation to default on its debts if Obama doesn't agree to their demands, they are violating the Constitution. And the president should call them out for such an outrageous demand. But does that mean that the president can raise the debt ceiling himself to remedy the violation?
Not so fast. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the authority to borrow on the credit of the United States. Even so, under section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment the president has an independent constitutional obligation not to allow the validity of the debt of the United States to be put into question. That means, at the very least, that the president must make sure that interest payments continue on existing federal bonds and similar obligations. He must assure bondholders that they will continue to get paid even after the debt ceiling is reached.
If the president follows his constitutional obligations, then some government operations will not get funded because payments to the bondholders must come first. That means a partial government shutdown, with more and more of the government closed as the president continues to pay the bondholders.
We've seen this movie before. Once government offices close and government checks aren't issued, the public will complain loudly, the markets will tumble, and Congress will eventually have to give in, just as it did in the winter of 1995. The public will rightly conclude that Congress is to blame, because it was Congress, and not the president, who tried to hold the nation's economy hostage.
The president's obligation to pay the bondholders first-- and not the power to ignore the debt ceiling--is how the Fourteenth Amendment helps the president resolve any debt ceiling crisis. All he has to do is follow the Constitution and he will come out on top. He doesn't have to raise the debt limit at all. Instead, he must calmly explain to Republicans in advance what he will do -- and not do -- if they remain intransigent. He must explain to them that their course of action will inevitably lead to a government shutdown, and that the shutdown -- and its associated costs to the country -- will be on their heads.
In fact, if Obama did announce that he would ignore the debt ceiling -- as some Democrats would like -- he would actually take the pressure off Congressional Republicans. Then they would have an incentive to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, let Obama take the political heat for issuing new bonds, and then attack Obama's decision in the courts. They might even use his action as an excuse to try to impeach him.
To be sure, if the crisis continues long enough that the markets have completely melted down and there is not enough money even to pay the bondholders, the president might have a constitutional obligation to issue new debt to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment. But by then the world economy would be in a complete shambles; it is far more likely that Congress would raise the debt ceiling well before that point.
The moral of the story is simple: The best way for Obama to head off Republican threats of another debt ceiling crisis is to make his position clear at the outset. First, he should explain that he won't bargain with hostage takers. Second, he should make clear that he won't let Congress off the hook by raising the debt ceiling himself. Obama has now made both of these statements publicly. Third, he should state clearly that if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling he will continue to pay all of the nation's debts as required by the Constitution. Fourth, he should make clear that he will continue to do so even if this means curtailing or shutting down government functions until Congress comes to its senses.
If Obama does all these things, he will be in the strongest possible bargaining position. And he will also be following the Constitution.
Some of Charles Schulz’s fans blame the cartoon dog for ruining Peanuts. Here’s why they’re wrong.
It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.
Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.”
“Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is a baseline condition of human consciousness.”
Gary Noesner is a former FBI hostage negotiator. For part of the 51-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, he was the strategic coordinator for negotiations with the compound’s leader, David Koresh. This siege ended in infamous tragedy: The FBI launched a tear-gas attack on the compound, which burned to the ground, killing 76 people inside. But before Noesner was rotated out of his position as the siege’s head negotiator, he and his team secured the release of 35 people.
Jamie Holmes, a Future Tense Fellow at New America, spoke to Noesner for his new book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. “My experience suggests,” Noesner told Holmes, “that in the overwhelming majority of these cases, people are confused and ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. Part of them wants to surrender, part of them doesn’t want to surrender.” And good negotiators, Noesner says, are “people who can dwell fairly effectively in the areas of gray, in the uncertainties and ambiguities of life.”
In a new book, the former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross explores just how close Israel came to attacking Iran, and why Susan Rice accused Benjamin Netanyahu of throwing “everything but the n-word” at Barack Obama.
Updated on October 9, 2015 at 12:40 p.m.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington early next month for a meeting with President Obama, he should at least know that he is more popular in the White House than Vladimir Putin. But not by much.
This meeting will not reset the relationship between the two men in any significant way, and not only because Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama by accepting the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute on this same short trip. The meeting between the two leaders will most likely be businesslike and correct, but the gap between the two is essentially unbridgeable. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the hopelessly naive Obama broke a solemn promise to never allow Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. From Obama’s perspective, Netanyahu violated crucial norms of U.S.-Israel relations by publicly and bitterly criticizing an Iran deal that—from Obama’s perspective—protects Israel, and then by taking the nearly unprecedented step of organizing a partisan (and, by the way, losing and self-destructive) lobbying campaign against the deal on Capitol Hill.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The leaderless GOP begins its search for a speaker anew, starting with a campaign to draft Paul Ryan.
First Eric Cantor. Then John Boehner. Now Kevin McCarthy.
Conservatives in and out of Congress have, within a span of 15 months, tossed aside three of the four men most instrumental in the 2010 victory that gave Republicans their majority in the House. When the leaderless and divided party gathers on Friday to begin anew its search for a speaker, the biggest question will be whether that fourth man, Paul Ryan, will take a job that for the moment, only he can win.
Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee and chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has for years resisted entreaties to run for speaker, citing the demands of the job on his young family and his desire to run the tax-writing panel, which he has called his “dream job.” And he did so again on Thursday, within minutes of McCarthy’s abrupt decision to abandon a race he had been favored to win. “I will not be a candidate for speaker,” Ryan tweeted. Yet the pressure kept coming. Lawmakers brought up his name throughout the day, and there were reports that Boehner himself had personally implored him to change his mind.
A new report details a black market in nuclear materials.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press published a horrifying report about criminal networks in the former Soviet Union trying to sell “radioactive material to Middle Eastern extremists.” At the center of these cases, of which the AP learned of four in the past five years, was a “thriving black market in nuclear materials” in a “tiny and impoverished Eastern European country”: Moldova.
It’s a new iteration of an old problem with a familiar geography. The breakup of the Soviet Union left a superpower’s worth of nuclear weapons scattered across several countries without a superpower’s capacity to keep track of them. When Harvard’s Graham Allison flagged this problem in 1996, he wrote that the collapse of Russia’s “command-and-control society” left nothing secure. To wit:
A popular Cornell professor tries to help language-arts types learn how to "make math" instead of just studying it.
Math has never been my strong suit. I opted out of it at every turn, particularly in college, where I enrolled in linguistics to fulfill my quantitative reasoning requirement. I even tried to overcome my aversion by taking a second whack at Algebra in my forties, but sadly, I still hand restaurant bills to my husband when it’s time to calculate the tip, and have long since given up on helping my teenage son with his Algebra II homework. Despite my negative feelings about math, I am a huge fan of Steven Strogatz, author, columnist, and Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University.
I follow Steve Strogatz on Twitter, and while I don’t always understand his tweets (“Would you like Bayesian or frequentist statistics with that?”), I do find them fascinating. When Steve tweeted that he’d be teaching an introductory math course for non-math majors at Cornell University (#old_dog#new_tricks#excited), I emailed and asked him to tell me more. Why would a veteran professor of higher math choose to spend a semester in the company of undergraduates, many of whom would rather visit the dentist than spend two hours a week exploring mathematical concepts?