As political brinksmanship livens up the cool, damp summer, a constitutional battle between the executive and legislature is now unfolding.
Congress, divided between two polarized political parties, cannot agree on a budget that will give its members political cover to raise the so-called debt ceiling. Default looms, with the specter of interest rates going up like Roman candles and the economy exploding into ashes like the same. Both sides trade political barbs about the other, with one side having the politics of class warfare as its only tool to keep its atrophied patrons in organized labor and leftist netroots happy, while the other, no less shameless in its employment of inane political rhetoric, at least pursue virtues of macroeconomic common sense.
Will the political impasse lead to economic collapse? We doubt it, thanks to the genius of the US Constitution.
On its way to ending discussion of the Union honoring Confederate war debts or paying reparations to slave owners (and leaving the question of reparations to slaves wide open, by the way), the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution begins its fourth section by stating flatly, "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."
This clause gives the Obama administration reason to consider whether the President's oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States authorizes him to order the Treasury to issue debt to cover the spending that a feckless and spendthrift Congress has authorized. SWNID is no constitutional scholar, though our academic discipline bears a closer resemblance to such than to just about any other. But we venture the opinion that this interpretation of the Constitution is probably sounder than what has been done over a generation to the "commerce clause."
Go for it, Mr. President. Sell those bonds! It's your duty. We mean it, without the least hint of sarcasm. When husband tells wife, "Spend more than we have, but don't use the credit cards," the wife is justified in doing one or the other, but not both. If the federal marriage is to work, the one who does the spending and borrowing needs to be able to decide whether to do both or neither when the legislative instructions conflict.
For those who think that Congress rulz on such matters, or that the Supremes ought to settle it, we draw attention to the long history of such conflict, anticipated and even designed by the Framers, in our Republic's glorious history. Start with Jefferson, who refused to spend funds that Congress appropriated for what he deemed unconstitutional activity, and who then acted without Congressional authorization or explicit constitutional mandate to take advantage of Napoleon's real-estate clearance sale of "Louisiana." Go to the War Powers Act, the constitutionality of which every POTUS of both parties until BHO has refused to acknowledge since its Congressional inception in Our Republic's dark ages, now a mere political side show in our generation's history of low-level American warfare.
This stuff is our government at its finest. Americans think that they like the idea of Congress getting along with each other and with the President, but the truth is that we should be a little suspicious when that's the case. It's decades of agreement about government patronage that have us in this mess, so maybe we ought to embrace the dispute that's on the way to getting us out.
Who arbitrates such disputes? Voters. Sharpen your pencils for bubbling in on 06 Nov 2012, citizens!
PS: We note in passing that the President's ordering the Treasury to issue the debt would have the salutary effect of ending the charade of Congress separately authorizing deficit spending and a limit on the Treasury's authorization for borrowing. The authorization to spend implies the authorization to borrow, n'est se qua?