While the details of federal budgetary policy are complex, the broad outline of the debt ceiling crisis is relatively straightforward: The narrow House Republican majority has a series of far-right demands they expect Democrats in the Senate and the White House to accept. If President Joe Biden and his allies refuse to pay the ransom, GOP leaders say they’ll use the debt ceiling to crash the economy on purpose.
There’s growing chatter, however, about a provocative alternative in which Biden could work around Congress to free the hostage.
Circling back to our recent coverage, the 14th Amendment solution is sometimes derided as a “gimmick,” but it’s rooted in a relatively straightforward reading of the constitutional text, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”
If the validity of the debt, under constitutional mandate, can’t be questioned, then it’s not up to Congress to pass legislation — it’s up to the executive branch to simply honor the nation’s obligations. Or put another way, if Biden and his team were to seriously pursue this, they would simply ignore the debt ceiling, note that the spending in question was already approved by the legislative branch through the appropriations process, and point to the 14th Amendment to say they have no choice but to follow the Constitution.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said yesterday that this approach is “legally questionable,” which is true. But around the same time, Rep. Jim Clyburn, a member of the House Democratic leadership and a close Biden ally, nevertheless urged the president to be ready to use the 14th Amendment to circumvent Congress and prevent Republicans from allowing the United States to default on its obligations.
This comes on the heels of Biden himself publicly acknowledging this week that he has, in fact, “been considering the 14th Amendment” as a potential resolution.
To date, GOP officials haven’t said much about this avenue, in part because they’ve been focused on their regressive ransom note, and in part because the idea seemed unlikely to be taken seriously.
But as the volume of the chatter grows, the Republican pushback appears to have begun in earnest. National Review, a prominent conservative outlet, reported late yesterday:
Representative Chip Roy (R., Texas) said Thursday he does not believe President Biden will use the 14th Amendment to avoid a debt ceiling standoff with House Republicans. Roy warned that if Biden went down that road, Republicans in Congress would “blow crap up.”
In context, the Texas Republican expressed confidence that Democrats would see the 14th Amendment solution as “radical” and “a bridge too far.”
But Roy added, “They know that if they go down that road with this 14th Amendment argument, we will blow crap up. I’m serious — it will be just open warfare in terms of what we’re going to deal with on the spending front if these SOBs try to go down this completely … unconstitutional and stupid road.”
Right off the bat, it’s worth noting the breathtaking irony of seeing a far-right congressman complain about “radical” tactics while he and his party are deliberately pushing the nation toward a first-ever default as part of a hostage crisis Republicans are imposing on the country.
It’s also rather amusing to see Roy describe honoring the text of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as “unconstitutional.”
As for the GOP lawmaker’s willingness to “blow crap up,” this is an easy threat to believe, though it’s not as scary as it might sound: If Republicans follow through on their debt ceiling threat, that too would have the effect of “blowing crap up.” Trying to prevent the party from imposing an economic catastrophe on Americans — and much of the world — would come at a cost, but the cost of default would almost certainly be greater.
But even if we put those elements aside, part of me wonders how many congressional Republicans would actually be relieved if the White House found a way to circumvent Capitol Hill and solve this problem without lawmakers having to vote.
GOP officials don’t want to be on the hook for creating an avoidable recession, and they see a political cost in dealing with the fiscal housecleaning. So why not let the president — and future presidents — shoulder the burden without them?
Whether conservative lawmakers are prepared to admit this or not, if Biden were to work around Congress and diffuse the default bomb, he’d be saving Republicans from themselves.
Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”