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.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
In late 2015, in the Chilean desert, astronomers pointed a telescope at a faint, nearby star known as ared dwarf. Amid the star’s dim infrared glow, they spotted periodic dips, a telltale sign that something was passing in front of it, blocking its light every so often. Last summer, the astronomers concluded the mysterious dimming came from three Earth-sized planets—and that they were orbiting in the star’s temperate zone, where temperatures are not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water, and maybe even life.
This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.
That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.
The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)
Rod Dreher makes a powerful argument for communal religious life in his book, The Benedict Option. But he has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.
Donald Trump was elected president with the help of 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Mike Pence, the champion of Indiana’s controversial 2015 religious-freedom law, is his deputy. Neil Gorsuch, a judge deeply sympathetic to religious litigants, will likely be appointed to the Supreme Court. And Republicans hold both chambers of Congress and statehouses across the country. Right now, conservative Christians enjoy more influence on American politics than they have in decades.
And yet, Rod Dreher is terrified.
“Don’t be fooled,” he tells fellow Christians in his new book, The Benedict Option. “The upset presidential victory of Donald Trump has at best given us a bit more time to prepare for the inevitable.”
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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