Deficits and Republican hypocrisy
Let’s talk sense about the debt ceiling.
Overruling prior legislation usually takes a majority of both Houses of Congress. Either House can refuse to pass new legislation. But neither House has the power to repeal existing legislation by itself – that requires a new law, passed by both Houses and usually signed by the president. That was important in the original constitutional system, to stop the House, which they expected to be southern dominated, or the Senate, which they expected to be northern dominated, from making unilateral decisions to satisfy either region. The law imposing a maximum on deficit spending requires a second act of legislation in order to pay the country’s bills. Since either House of Congress can block it, that requirement creates a one-house veto on appropriations already made by law and enables regional control over following through with payment of debts already authorized. The Court objected to a one-house veto in INS v. Chadha.
Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution says, “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.” It was passed in the wake of the Civil War so that the rebellious states, when readmitted, could not stop the payment of the Union debts. Requiring a separate and subsequent deficit spending authorization effectively blocks payment of legitimate debts. The Fourteenth Amendment was clearly designed to block a group of states from challenging payment of debts already approved, which is what House Republicans are trying to do. So there are two constitutional objections.
Should we allow the House to block payment of debts already approved anyway? Economists generally don’t fear deficits – they can help keep the economy buzzing. With the Fed heading us toward a slowdown, deficits are even more important to keep people working. No responsible economist thinks we can’t pay our debts – unless we willfully refuse to pay. And Republicans don’t think we can’t pay our debts either. In fact, they don’t care about deficits when Republican presidents create them but regularly claim concern about deficits even when Democrats shrink them.
Republican refusal to approve payment of debt is an excuse to attack otherwise popular programs in a way that’s constitutionally questionable.
This fight is about dealing with global warming, the social safety net, and efforts to protect America’s workers. Republicans object to those programs despite their benefits. Cutting Social Security and Medicare after American workers have bought into them is a breach of contract. Republicans worry about contracts that concern their big donors but rarely worry about honoring contracts for Americans of ordinary income.
Republicans are betting that acting tough on the debt ceiling will satisfy their supporters more than behaving themselves – indeed Republicans are all about behaving like bullies – brandishing guns, storming the Capital and blocking payment of America’s debts.
It’s possible to get around Republican bullying by printing money, stamping high value coins, or treating legal barriers to paying the country’s previously authorized debts as unconstitutional. That might fail in the Trump Court but it’s worth a try. Still, if we’re in the bullying business, I’d pay the bills for districts whose representatives vote to pay the country's bills but I’d honor the wishes of those who vote against paying the country’s bills by stiffing their states' creditors. Alas, the optics of that proposal probably stink.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
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