The Corner

Our Upside-Down Debt-Ceiling Debate

The presumptions and assumptions behind the public debate over the debt ceiling seem to be upside-down. From the perspective of the status quo, at least, the GOP’s critics are right to characterize Republicans as the “aggressors” in the fight. But, one might ask, “So what?” That the House is taking an aggressive and prominent role in the process is not only acceptable constitutionally, but it is desirable — nay, normal. The Constitution makes it abundantly clear that national fiscal policy is the primary remit of the lower chamber, and that it is thus the House’s job to to take the lead on such issues. It also makes it clear that there is nothing to stop the House, in the process of addressing those issues, from asking for whatever it damn well wants. If the public is angry with the House’s behavior, then they can punish it — that is politics. But it is entirely within its rights to try.

And yet, for some reason, it is widely presumed that the president’s wishes should serve as the baseline for the debate. This makes little sense. Yes, the president can veto anything he doesn’t like. But so can the House. Why is it incumbent upon the House to come up with a platform that the president likes and not vice-versa? After all, the House is at the top of the fiscal hierachy, followed closely by the Senate, and then, last and very much least, by the president, who, remember, is supposed primarily to concern himself with foreign affairs. Sure, Barack Obama may have won election to head up the executive branch. But, this being a constititional republic not an parliamentary monarchy, that doesn’t give him carte blanche over legislative and fiscal matters. The idea that there is anything wrong with the House demanding fiscal and legislative concessions from the executive branch is absurd. Especially, perhaps, when the point of contention is a deeply unpopular piece of legislation and the matter at hand is fiscal.

Meanwhile, the insistence that the Democratic majority in the Senate is trying to be reasonable in the face of a parade of House crazies is looking more and more risible by the day. This morning, Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, tweeted out the platitude that “governing must be a cooperative effort that sets aside the ideological or parochial concerns in favor of what is best for the nation.” In the few hours that have passed since that time, Reid has demonstrated a flat-out unwillingness to follow his own advice. As CBS’s Nancy Cordes noted earlier today when asked whether Reid would consider compromising on “any of the items in the House Republican debt ceiling bill,” the majority leader gave a “one word answer: ‘No.’”

This, apparently, applies even to things that Reid considers to be bad policy. On the floor of the Senate, Reid described the Medical Device Tax as a “stupid tax,” which, as it happens, is a view shared not just by Republicans but also by a majority of Democrats. Nevertheless, when he was asked whether he’d consider repealing the tax, Reid replied, “No. They can play around all they want.” Then he affirmed that he would shut down the government before he would repeal a tax he himself opposes. This, of course, is the Senate’s prerogative as the second driver in the area. And, in real terms, Reid can play hardball as much as he likes. But can we at least stop pretending that he’s doing anything different than is Boehner?

Jay Carney, meanwhile, just told the press that any Republican conditions amount to a ”political extortion game” — a phrase that should not be surprising from an administration that has made it clear that it won’t even condescend to negotiate. This, again, is upside down. As I wrote last time around,

To submit that Congress has the right to raise the debt ceiling but that to refuse to do so would be “a step too far” is to grant that Congress does not actually enjoy power over the issue at all, but is instead just a bystander armed with a rubber stamp.

Still, this, one suspects, is exactly how the president, and the wider Wilsonian progressive movement, sees things. But if so, perhaps Jay Carney would be good enough to explain to us what he thinks Congress is for. Given yet another unilateral Obamacare delay this morning, the president evidently does not think that the legislative branch should be responsible for legislation. Does he consider financial matters to be outside of the House’s ambit as well?

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