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U.S. Debt Talks Mired in Theater

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Medicare cuts, controversial executive powers could be in play as deadline nears

By Charles D. Ellison, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –

WASHINGTON — While the White House and Congress clash like JoS. A. Bank-suited gladiators in a tamed scene from “Spartacus,” a rapidly approaching debt ceiling deadline looms on the horizon: Aug. 2.

Fears abound over fiscal “Apocalypse Now” — scenes of bomb runs dropping napalm on economic sanity with House Republican freshmen on the side lines yelling about “loving the smell of default in the morning.” Contrary to some opinions, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) really wants a deal. Yet, there are mixed signals emanating from the House GOP leadership helm. He’s waving his arms about, flashing his tan, and waxed polemic during a recent press conference about “… no agreement in public or in private” regarding the debt ceiling.

“It’s not like there’s some imminent deal about to happen,” goes Boehner in his trademark avuncular style and Cincinnati chest thump. “There are serious disagreements about how to deal with this very serious problem.”

But, that just means he’s instigating for an eventual deal, poking and prodding for the limits in the conversation. He still acknowledges that if the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2, the nation will be in “an awful lot of jeopardy.”

Moments out on the links chuckling over putts and drives probably brought both Boehner and President Barack Obama a bit closer together in these remaining weeks before the nightmare of Greek-like chaos hits stateside. No one can be for certain. But, both of their respective offices remain tight-lipped and wary of confirming unofficial weekend meetings between the two.

“We’re not going to get into specific meetings, or read them out, or preview them, because we believe that is the right approach to increase our chances of reaching an agreement,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rather dryly last week.

“If you can find people who would rather know the content of an individual meeting the president may or may not have had with a member of Congress than an actual accomplishment from Washington, I’ll buy you lunch,” Carney joked further.

Which annoys many of the Hill’s Democrats — especially progressives — even further upon hearing reports of a president calling all bluffs with plans for an even bigger deal: $4 trillion. While talks have slumbered on for months over $1 trillion in cuts for the short term and $2 trillion just to get by until the 2012 election cycle, the White House pushes a messy mountain of chips on the table with $4 trillion in proposed cuts over the next decade.

An endless loop of reports and grapevine gossip from the White House suggested many of the savings will come out of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That seemed to align with the timing of a sudden and rather unprecedented enthusiasm in the debt ceiling talks as the president began injecting himself into the conversation out of frustration that Vice President Joe Biden’s cozy-over-tea Blair House talks weren’t going anywhere.

That’s alarming House Democrats — even while they see a political opportunity to reinsert themselves while helping Boehner rally the votes needed to offset insurgent Republican members unwilling to support a debt ceiling package.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), convinced that proposed draconian GOP cuts on Social Security and Medicare will offer vindication and a return to power in 2012, was on fire later in the week when White House budget director Jack Lew attempted to sell wolf tickets. “Don’t insult us,” blasted Pelosi in a comeback-girl pose that pushed Lew back in his committee hearing seat. “You guys don’t know how to count.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) was also jumping into the discussion, on talking point with Pelosi, as Democrats — for the first time in a while — seemed disciplined and on message. Edwards, one of many Congressional Black Caucus Members miffed with their former alum-turned-president on a number of fronts, definitely wants to have that discussion “down the line … making sure [entitlements] are stable and solvent.” She’s animate during a brief YouTube interview on Crewof42.com: “But, let’s not conflate the issues. They didn’t cause the deficit and they don’t need to be on the table.”

“The debt ceiling talks are far more than political theatre,” says Lauren Burke, a longtime CBC watcher and chief editor of Crewof42.com. “They are the first step in what may be a major and fundamental change in how the federal government treats low income citizens. That Social Security is a part of the negotiations provides a window into what the GOP is really about: moving money going to the government into private sector hands.”

But while skirmishes on the Hill erupt into uncertainty over whether or not leaders of both parties can come to agreement, there is increasing noise surrounding a nuclear option progressives are eager for the president to engage: the 14th Amendment.

Formerly a long shot, liberals in the fray are now invoking the Constitution as zealously as tea party conservatives, arguing that there shouldn’t even be a discussion or debate on the debt ceiling since it’s “unconstitutional.” Should debt ceiling negotiations fail, argue the talking head class, the President is well within his authority to simply shut the (tea) party down and impose the 14th Amendment.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, unapologetic liberal chief editor for The Nation, calls it “Obama’s best option” in a recent Washington Post op-ed. With that backdrop, President Obama may find that there is only one course left to avoid a global economic calamity: Invoke Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which says that “‘the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.’ This constitutional option is one that the president alone may exercise.”

University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps claims he’s the first to have sparked the public flame on the topic, promoting the idea that even though “Constitutional interpretation is rarely cut and dried … a lot of executive power specialists have looked at it and taken it seriously.”

“It's not a nutty idea, let me put it that way,” contends Epps. “The situation hasn't ever arisen before to my knowledge.”

“There is a very serious argument that the debt ceiling itself is needless, and even unconstitutional,” observes Epps. “Certainly there's nothing in the Constitution providing for or requiring a debt ceiling. Many scholars argue that when Congress appropriates funds it implicitly authorizes the Treasury to borrow to pay the appropriated monies, and that a separate statute can't prevent the funds from being expended unless it explicitly repeals the appropriation.”

But, former Republican Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK), now a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, profoundly disagrees. “No. The 14th Amendment does not give absolute authority to the president regarding the debt. That interpretation certainly conflicts with Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives power to Congress to borrow and determine the debt of the United States.”

Istook contends that the initial purpose of the 14th Amendment was related to post-Civil War factors, “… a way to ensure the U.S. was not going to pay the debts of the Confederacy. Not to give anyone authority over the debt. That requires a certain level of selectivity and prioritizing that only the Congress can do.”

Istook points to Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-PA) proposed Full Faith and Credit Act legislation as a step in that direction. Toomey is looking for a way to service the debt while dramatically reining in spending.

Epps contends that if the President were to call on the Constitution as an impasse-breaker to avoid a meltdown in the global markets, it “would unquestionably be a constitutional crisis” — which could be an even worse situation.

“I would expect the only two mechanisms to solve it would be a) a move to impeach the President and/or b) the 2012 elections, which would allow the people to weigh in,” says Epps. “I don't see a way in which a presidential decision to breach the debt ceiling could make it to federal court. On the other hand, if the U.S. defaults on its obligations there will unquestionably be lawsuits against the U.S., which the U.S. will lose.”

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