It is one thing to watch progressive journalists work themselves into a tizz in the breathless pursuit of a legal means by which the president might bypass Congress and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. It is quite another to watch leaders in Congress do so. The American constitutional order is predicated on the assumption that the branches of government will jealously guard their prerogatives. “Powers properly belong to one of the departments,” wrote James Madison in Federalist 48 “ought not to be directly and completely administered by either of the other departments.” This, naturally, would include the authority to raise the debt ceiling, which is clearly invested in the legislative branch and has been since 1917.
Nevertheless, Nancy Pelosi – who, remember, was Speaker of the House for four years and is now the minority leader – is apparently more than happy to see the authority of her branch undermined, providing that her team wins. This, one suspects, is precisely what Washington means in his farewell address when he sought to “warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.” Per Jennifer Bendery in the Huffington Post:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is breathing new life into a previously floated idea for resolving risky congressional fights over raising the government’s borrowing limit: the 14th Amendment.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Pelosi said President Barack Obama may not like the idea, but she thinks it’s within his constitutional authority to raise the debt ceiling himself, in the event Congress fails to do so. Her pitch comes as House Republicans seem to be preparing for a fight over the matter in the coming days.
“I think the 14th Amendment covers it,” said Pelosi. “The president and I have a disagreement in that regard, I guess. I guess!”
She added, “I would never have taken that off the table.”
Pelosi is mirroring the behavior of Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who suggested precisely the same thing during the last fight earlier this year. At the time Politico reported that:
In a strongly worded letter to President Barack Obama, Reid and his leadership team argue that failing to raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling would threaten the full faith and credit of the United States. Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer and Patty Murray asserted that Obama “must make clear that you will never allow our nation’s economy and reputation to be held hostage.”
“In the event that Republicans make good on their threat by failing to act, or by moving unilaterally to pass a debt limit extension only as part of an unbalanced or unreasonable legislation, we believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without congressional approval, if necessary,” the Friday letter to Obama says.
Congress has proved itself to be rather supine in recent years, delegating authority to the executive branch and allowing the creation of what are effectively enabling acts. The recent ubuiqity of the phrase, “the secretary shall” should send a chill through anybody invested in the idea of separated powers. This, however, goes one step further, actively handing over powers to the executive branch that do not in any way belong to it. It raises the question, too: If Congress won’t defend its prerogative, who will?