President Barack Obama claims to have ruled out using the 14th amendment, and if you read the statements of his Press Secretary and the President’s own words, you’d be forgiven for believing that it’s not an option.
However, in politics you never look at just what the principles are saying, you look at what they are doing, and the potential impact of what they say. For instance, President Obama clearly doesn’t want to invoke the 14th amendment. But if he threatened to do so, the left wing of the Democratic party would mount a concerted effort to stop any negotiated settlement that includes significant debt reduction in the Senate. Obama had to convince his own party that they did not have the 14th amendment as a fall back should negotiations fail. That would be necessary to get them to vote for a last minute compromise.
This also suggests that Obama wanted to reach a “grand compromise” with significant budget cuts, and may still through back channels and secret talks be headed in that direction. His public schedule has been empty, but full of private and unpublicized meetings. Things are brewing, but we don’t know what.
The 14th amendment reads in part: 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. The President could say that the constitution by stating that the validity of the public debt should not questioned, requires that it be paid. The only way to do that, and continue spending money the Congress voted to spend, is to raise the debt ceiling. The interpretation is plausible enough to not be “over the top,” even if weak.
I do not think it is a winning argument. Article 1, Section 8 gives Congress the power to pay debts and borrow money. One could argue that Amendment 14 altered this by adding to the President’s power by saying the validity of the debt should not be questioned. An historical read of this amendment, however, clearly weakens that claim — it is focused on the Civil period and its aftermath. Nonetheless a literal interpretation (e.g., just the text, not historical context) at least creates an opening for that argument.
Some people claim that President Truman invoked the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceiling. That isn’t true. He used the amendment to integrate the military, but during his Presidency there was no increase in the debt ceiling. In fact, since the debt ceiling was created in 1939 Truman is the only President not to have raised it. Most have raised it five to seven times, though Ronald Reagan’s years brought 17 debt ceiling increases – not surprising since the Reagan years saw the biggest relative growth in debt in US history.
But for politics the issue becomes murky. First, President Obama knows the constitution well, having taught it. He may believe that it is his duty not to violate the interpretation he believes correct, and thus he may have already completely ruled out using the 14th amendment. That would make him a politician of rare integrity, since for most the question of legality gets replaced by one of political realism — will it work, and can I get away with it.
To the latter, despite Republican calls for impeachment should he go that route (something that might actually help Obama in 2012), he can get away with it legally. The Senate will never convict him if impeached, and at least until the Supreme Court rules, he could do it. Could it hurt him in 2012? That’s harder to say, and separate from the legal issue. The President would frame it as a matter of leadership and doing what is necessary to protect America from Republicans who would be accused of threatening to do more harm to the US than Osama Bin Laden did on 9-11. The Republicans would frame as a power grab by a leader who wanted to do things his way, regardless of the rules. If the country believes the President, he’d win in 2012. If the GOP convince the public he was out of line, he loses.
The GOP position now is weak due to the reputation the House has of extremism and refusing to compromise. The GOP is in danger of looking as they did back in 1999 against Clinton when their over the top attacks backfired and helped the President increase popularity. Of course, Clinton had a booming economy going for him, something Obama lacks. If the Court ruled against him (something I would consider likely) that would aid the GOP argument and send a weakened Obama into the election. In fact, if things got that bad Obama might give an LBJ like shock speech, announcing he would not seek the nomination due to the divisiveness of economic battles, perhaps opening the door for Hillary. (That is not a scenario likely at this point!)
However, looking at the possibilities, it comes down to this: how serious is the threat to the economy, and how well can the US handle either a default, government shut down (which would come from using the available money to avoid default — a huge chunk of the government could not be paid for), or downgrade in the bond rating. If the threat is serious, the President might decide that it’s worth risking his re-election on doing whatever possible to avoid that outcome. He could try to couple that with a renewed effort to get significant spending cuts passed to get a debt limit ceiling raised (for longer than six months — which would do no good, really). If that got passed before the court ruled, it would be worth it. But more things could go wrong for the President than right, under that scenario.
On the other hand, new voices calling for invocation of the 14th amendment might have a political aim. If this option once again appears plausibly in the Presidents arsenal, House Republicans (especially moderate Republicans) would realize that their capacity to force the President to do their biding by holding the economy hostage declines. This would create a real push for an alternative deal that saves face for everyone and avoids clear winner/loser scenario.
Politically, Speaker Boehner has staked everything on his plan, and the drama of getting his own party support it sends a message to the White House and Senate — this is as good as you can get, we had to work to get this! President Obama has vehemently opposed setting a rehashing of this chaos six months from now. If either one gets their way completely, one comes away wounded. Neither will accept that, making a stand off likely. However, if McConnell, Reid and other power brokers can figure out a face saving deal that can pass and cannot be seen as a clear victory for either side, that will resolve the crisis.
So is the 14th amendment a serious option? Yes, but only as a last resort, and perhaps not even then. If it comes to that, it’ll be a very entertaining year in politics coming up, but that would not be good for the country.