So I had this mini conversation with Keith Olbermann on Twitter today, which started out with a simple question I posed in response to his impassioned critique of yesterday’s debt ceiling deal. The conversation began thusly:
I respect @KeithOlbermann’s righteous indignation over the debt deal. I just wish he, or anyone, could identify what the alternatives were.
To which Mr. Olbermann responded:
@Dave_von_Ebers The alternatives are for POTUS not to congratulate himself, and for there to be pressure on him and the system from the left
And then added:
@Dave_von_Ebers and practically, since the credit rating may be lowered anyway, the 14th Amendment was just as viable as capitulation
As to the latter point, while I don’t know if Mr. Olbermann’s correct about the impact on the country’s credit rating, I’ve already expressed my trepidation over the so-called “Fourteenth Amendment solution” here and here.
But as to the former argument, Mr. Olbermann has a point, doesn’t he? That is to say, those of us who aren’t in Congress or the White House have to use the tools that are available to us to try to effect change. On election day, you can vote; and leading up to an election, you can pound the pavement canvassing for your favorite candidates. Between elections, however, the only tool we really have is, as Mr. Olbermann says, pressure. Meaning, I guess, writing, calling and e-mailing your elected representatives (I e-mailed my Congressman, Rep. Danny Davis, earlier today); writing letters to the editor; blogging and Tweeting to your heart’s content. … And, if you’re lucky enough to have a television or radio program, you can take to the airwaves to rail about anything and everything that gets your goat.
Nonetheless, the question remains: if you’re going to use the tool that’s currently available – political pressure – what are you going to apply it to? I suppose there’s some utility in grousing about the debt ceiling deal itself, even though it’s, as those French socialists say, a fiat accompli. After all, if your elected officials do something you don’t like, why wouldn’t you give them an earful? Theoretically, the more complaints they hear about their past mistakes the more likely they are to think twice about repeating them.
Or, maybe it just makes you feel better even though you know it’ll have little impact on the jokers anyway.
But when the outrage over the debt deal wears off, or when you decide you really want to do something to improve the country’s future, you may want to consider applying that political pressure to … getting rid of the debt ceiling once and for all. I made the case the other day that the debt ceiling is both horrible policy and most likely unconstitutional under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but I’m not the only one who thinks the debt ceiling has to go. In fact, former Republican economic advisor Bruce Bartlett made a similar argument in the New York Times just yesterday:
Almost 10 years ago, I testified before the Senate Finance Committee that the debt limit should be abolished. Among the others who testified that day, including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, no one supported my position.
What we have seen, currently and in the years since that hearing, is that for any politician to deny the validity of the debt limit is effectively to support unlimited debt, something no member of either party can afford to be accused of.
The negotiations leading up to Sunday night’s announcement that President Obama and Congressional leaders of both parties had reached a deal to cut trillions of dollars in federal spending over the next decade makes the case against the debt limit that much stronger. We now know that it is a powerful mechanism for political extortion.
Unless the party holding the White House has a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives and at least 60 seats in the Senate, raising the debt limit is going to remain a means by which the minority party can impose its demands on the majority.
That is, in fact, exactly what happened here (and, in my view, would have happened no matter what strategy Pres. Obama pursued); and it’s exactly what the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment, and in particular, Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, sought to avoid.
And while Mr. Bartlett is right when he says that, generally speaking, politicians have been reluctant to take a stand against the debt ceiling (meaning, in Mr. Bartlett’s words, they’d be “support[ing] unlimited debt”), if ever there was an opportunity to turn the tide on the issue, it might be right now, because the country is pretty disgusted with the way this whole scenario played out. According to CNN:
A majority of Americans disapprove of the deal struck Sunday by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders that will raise the country’s legal borrowing limit, and three out of four believe elected officials have acted like “spoiled children.”
According to a CNN/ORC International poll conducted Monday during a House of Representatives vote on the legislation, 52 percent of Americans say they are opposed to the debt ceiling deal while 44 percent are in favor of it. The Senate passed the legislation Tuesday in a 74-26 vote.
Seventy-seven percent of respondents said elected officials who have dealt with the debt ceiling have acted like spoiled children. Just 17 percent believe the politicians have acted like responsible adults.
That’s pretty astonishing, when you think about it; and if anything it plays right into the arguments I have made, Mr. Bartlett made yesterday, and, in fact, the drafters of Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment made 145 years ago. We should not allow the spoiled children in Congress to use the nation’s public debt for extortion – but they will as long as they have the debt ceiling to rely on.
So now that we’ve got the public’s attention, let’s bring that pressure to bear on repealing the debt ceiling, shall we, Mr. Olbermann?
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.