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American Low

August 4, 2011

The debt deal just passed by Congress and signed by President Obama marks a new low for American democracy. The American people agree: 84% of respondents to a CNN poll today disapproved of Congress. It’s understandable why. In terms of specifics, the deal that passed did not fulfill the will of the American people: according to a Gallup poll, 80% of Americans wanted a deal with at least some taxes. In the abstract, the whole debate showed that “Washington” could barely agree on an issue of vital national importance and almost pushed the economy into a second recession.

The reality of the debate, however, wasn’t that “Washington” couldn’t get anything done. Instead, Republicans didn’t want to get anything done unless they got their way and were more than comfortable holding the economy over a barrel to get what they wanted. Flaws in the American governance structure and an addiction to he-said-she-said reporting in media served to enable their tactics.   The result is staggering. Even though Democrats control half of Congress and the Presidency, the deal included no revenue increases while Republicans received almost everything on their wish list, aside from the requirement of a Balanced Budget Amendment (a ludicrous policy) for further debt ceiling increases. Instead, Congress will hold a vote on the amendment but is not required to pass it. Considering that the spending cuts will likely weaken the economy, the deal is demoralizing, infuriating and harmful, all at once.

One person had the power to prevent this outcome: President Obama. In most previous negotiations (i.e. healthcare/financial reform), Obama was constrained  by the filibuster. On the debt ceiling, however, Obama had a path through which he could have unilaterally achieved whatever everyone knew was the proper outcome. The 14th Amendment states that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, . . . shall not be questioned”. In 1935, the Supreme Court wrote, ““While this provision was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War, its language indicates a broader connotation.” The debt ceiling is an unnecessary and counterproductive policy to begin with. If Congress has approved spending, the government should pay for it. If Congress wants to reduce the debt, they can cut spending or raise revenues. The debt ceiling likely violates the 14th Amendment and threatens the American economy and there’s no better time to get rid of it than now. If Obama can unilaterally bomb Libya, he shouldn’t hesitate to raise the debt ceiling. The latter is much more important for national security.

By failing to even threaten to use the 14th Amendment, Obama gave up any leverage he had against the lock-step partisanship of the Republicans. He brought a spoon to a gunfight. After the first two years of his presidency, this is inexcusable. Did Obama think the Republicans would compromise? Was there any reason to think that they would? In a statement praising the agreement, Obama said the second phase of the bill (in which a Joint Select Committee – or “Super Congress” – crafts a proposal for another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction) would be important in maintaining a “balanced approach”. More wishful thinking on Obama’s part: both McConnell and Boehner have said Republican Super Congress members won’t agree to raise revenues. Guess what happens if the Super Congress can’t agree on anything? Cuts.

Obama assumed the presidency promising a new type of politics. Instead, we’ve got more of the same, but worse. Obama isn’t the source of the problems but he isn’t actively trying to fix it. Isn’t he furious about this deal? Why isn’t he calling out Republican intransigence? It’s past time he took a risk, for the sake of the American people and the future of the country.

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