Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Obama, Trump, and the Debt Ceiling

All of which is just preliminary to my real point, that anyone who really thinks Obama has been acting like a renegade executive, let alone a dictator should consider his behavior during the debt ceiling showdown and consider what an actual dictator would have done.  We'll set aside truly dictatorial behavior like arresting the participants, dissolving Congress, or declaring martial law as something so far outside of acceptable American norms as to be unthinkable and assume that when Republicans accuse Obama of being a "dictator," they mean in relative terms.  And what would be a good point of comparison?  I don't know, how about Donald Trump.  Suppose it had not been Barrack Obama, but Donald Trump who was facing down a Congress that had already shut down the government and was threatening to default on the debt.  I will grant that arresting the participants, dissolving Congress, or declaring martial law would be as unthinkable for Trump as they were for Obama, but what about some of the more relatively dictatorial options Obama was offered?*

Consider some of the semi-dictatorial options that Obama's supporters seriously proposed, and what Trump might have done in his place, from most to least drastic.

Mint the coins:  Some people were actually urging Obama to mint platinum coins valued at $1 trillion to cover the gap.  This was based on some loophole in the law that allowed the President to mint platinum coins -- clearly intended to mean commemorative coins rather than legal tender, and definitely in the trillion dollar denominations, but it never actually said so.  I never much cared for this option because, although maybe Obama could have done it, and maybe it would have been technically legal, but it would have destroyed forever any US credibility as a serious country.  After all, if you mint one trillion dollar coin to prevent a debt ceiling breach, what is to prevent the US from minting more any time it needs the money.  So far as I was concerned, Obama might just as well have called a press conference to announce the US was now a banana republic.  As for Trump -- well, his natural response to any crisis is to escalate, and he is so ignorant of basic public policy that I could actually imagine him doing this.  I like to think, though, that one of his saner advisers would talk him down.  In short, refraining from this option is not proof that the President is not dictatorial; it is merely proof that he is not a crazy dictator.  I don't think even Obama's worst enemies claim that he is a crazy dictator.  Donald Trump might be, but I can still hope he would have at least one sane adviser.

Withhold funding from anyone who won't cooperate:  Other people suggested that Obama tell any member of Congress who refused to raise the debt ceiling that when the cuts hit, their district would be the one to suffer.  Not just pork, but no funding of any kind, quite possibly not even Social Security checks to people who lived there.  The goal, of course, would be to put the squeeze on the people and make them put pressure on their representative.  And I will admit, this approach has some attraction at the visceral level.  But it is the sort of thing that is so flagrant and outrageous an abuse of power that the affect is often to stiffen, rather than undermine, people's resolve.  It is a good general rule that when people see their suffering as random and meaningless, their morale and will to resist does often weaken.  But when they see their suffering as intentionally inflicted, most people respond with anger and a determination not to back down.

Obama offered another reason as well for not taking this approach.  He said the US Treasury was simply not set up to allow this.  Bills came in and had to be paid, with no way of making the distinction what to pay and what not to.  He made clear that bills would be paid on a first-come-first-serve basis with no attempt made to prioritize.  Indeed, he even questioned whether it would be possible to give priority to paying interest on the national debt and averting a worldwide financial crisis.  And presumably even if one could establish some system of priorities, anything so fine-tuned as figuring out which Congressional District each and every Social Security check was going to and paying or  not paying accordingly.  The first-come-first-serve approach, in addition to being the technically easiest for the Treasury to do, had the additional advantage of making any hardships that resulted truly random and meaningless, without any political design.

I suppose Republicans could argue that making the hardship random and meaningless was itself a kind of political ploy, a way of bringing pressure by ensuring that no one was safe, and that what Obama should have done was carefully calculate his cuts so as to cause the least possible damage. Certainly this argument has a strong moral appeal.  But I can also see a few faults with it.  One is the question of whether it was technically feasible the way the Treasury was set up.  But presumably it should have been possible to at least explore that possibility and make some attempt at harm mitigation, however poorly executed.  Another is that Obama's definition of "least possible damage" and Congressional Republicans' might very well have been different.  But the main problem is that there is no way to cut federal spending by a third overnight without inflicting a great deal of pain, and that criticizing how Obama intended to deal with the shortfall was simply a way of attempting to deflect responsibility and blame Obama for how he handled a debt ceiling breach, instead of placing responsibility where it belonged -- on the people who refused to raise the debt ceiling.

And, only a closely related note, if you truly believe that we have an out-of-control executive and a President acting like a dictator, demanding that he cut the federal budget by a third overnight but giving him complete discretion what to cut with no guidance whatever is not the way to reign him in. It is simply an attempt to avoid responsibility for the pain that will inevitably be involved.  And, it should be added, it shows an extraordinary degree of confidence in the man you claim is an out-of-control dictator that he will not abuse his power to make the cuts hurt you and yours.

In short, even if the setup of the Treasury made it impossible to prioritize what did and did not get paid, if Obama had truly had the sort of dictatorial inclinations his enemies claimed, he would have at least threatened to arrange the cuts so as to hurt his opponents the most.  Presumably many of his opponents would not have realized it was an empty bluff.  And he would have at least explored the possibility of finding a way to make it work.

Now imagine Trump in a similar position!  Can anyone doubt that he would have threatened to do just that?  Could anything be more in character?  And even if it had not been technically feasible, Trump is sufficiently ignorant of how our government works that he probably would not realize his threat was just an empty bluff.

Declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional:  This one might actually be defensible.  The reasoning would be as follows.  Congress made three contradictory sets of laws.  One set taxes and determined what national revenues would be.  One set spending levels and commanded the government to spend certain amounts on certain programs.  One set lending levels and limited what the government could borrow to meet its obligations.  Refusal to raise the debt ceiling put these three commandments in inexorable contradiction.  The President, in effect, was commanded to spend a certain amount, but forbidden to either raise taxes or borrow enough to actually spend was he was legally obligated to spend.  The result was to force him to disobey one of three laws. He could either (1) illegally raise taxes to cover mandated spending, (2) illegally fail to spend money the budget ordered him to spend, or (3) illegally borrow to meet mandatory spending goals.

We can rule out (1) right away.  It is a longstanding rule of our government dating back to Medieval England that the legislature alone may tax, and that this gives it the power of the purse strings.  The English Civil War (17th Century) was fought largely over the King's attempts to evade this restriction by seeking "voluntary gifts."  Parliament defeated the King and cut his head off a century before the French made such things fashionable.  The American Revolution was largely fought over whether the colonial legislature or an unaccountable British Parliament would control the purse strings.  To allow the President to unilaterally raise taxes would be manifestly unconstitutional.

But should the President illegally fail to spend what has been ordered, or illegally borrow what has been forbidden? The answer is less clear.  Republicans tended to believe that the President should refuse to spend what was budgeted, presumably because (1) much of the budget is mandatory spending on programs set decades ago by earlier Congresses, while the budget ceiling is immediate and; (2) the budget should be seen as a limitation in spending rather than a command to spend.  But their unwillingness to offer any sort of guidance on what to cut was such an extreme abdication of responsibility that the President might argue that for him to make those decisions was an unconstitutional usurpation of legislative power, and that continuing to borrow despite the prohibition was really the least arrogant and usurping decision he could make.

Can anyone doubt that Donald Trump, in such a position, would have done just that?  Or rather, lacking any real concept that the President is constrained by laws passed by Congress at all, he would probably just have proceeded to borrow, unaware that of the constitutional crisis he was causing.  In any event, Obama declined to do even that.  He made clear that, if his borrowing authority ran out, the Treasury would continue to pay as many bills as it could on a first-come-first-serve basis, falling ever further and further behind until Congress relented.  And, in the end, Congress did relent at the last minute.  (And prove that it can act quickly if it absolutely has to).

By refusing to take dictatorial options many advisers urged, or to assume dictatorial powers (to unilaterally cut spending) that many Republicans desperately wanted him to, Obama showed that he was no dictator.  Admittedly, there was a strong element of political calculation at work.  Obama kept his power constrained to ensure that if we did default on the debt, Congressional Republicans would be blamed.  But can anyone doubt that Trump would have assumed dictatorial powers (probably, the power of threatening to cut spending on specific political rivals) in his place?  One has only to imagine Trump in the debt ceiling showdown to understand just how much not a dictator Obama has been -- and how much of a dictator Trump would be.

*Here, I should add, many people will object and say such a showdown would never happen.  Republicans would fall in line once one of their own became President and lose all interest in debt and deficits, while Democrats would never do anything that crazy in the first place.  And I will admit, it is a stretch, but not unimaginable.  The Republicans' ability to force concessions by refusing to raise the debt ceiling was thwarted by what might be called the Madman Caucus, who refused to raise the debt ceiling no matter what concessions they might get in return.  We might imagine that caucus still refusing to raise the debt ceiling, even under Trump, and having seized the Speakership and therefore prevent putting it to vote with the support of Democrats.  Or maybe Trump's first two years prove so unpopular as to deliver at least one house back to the Democrats, who have developed their own madman caucus.  Or maybe Trump undertakes some anti-immigrant policy so brutal and inhumane that Democrats are prepared to resort to truly desperate measures to stop him.

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