Bold Presidential Leadership and Congressional Shirking

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

As I was channel surfing last night, I came across a segment on Rachel Maddow's show about the Beltway's response to the non-attack on Syria.  Her point was that even though the American people were (and are) overwhelmingly opposed to military intervention, and Congress balked at giving its blessing, and the situation has now at least temporarily been resolved through diplomatic means, the pundit class is in a collective fit over Obama's supposed failure to provide leadership.  She noted that the usual suspects seem to be quite unhappy that they did not get a new war.  As much as I have complained recently about the Beltway establishment's treatment of budget issues (e.g., yesterday's Dorf on Law post), I must say that their war-mongering is even more disgusting.

Maddow then interviewed former Congressman Barney Frank, who pointed out that members of Congress and the punditocracy have often complained about Presidential arrogance when it comes to making war.  But when this President actually put Congress in the position of having a say on military action, it turned out that members of Congress do not want to make tough decisions.  Hardly a novel observation, but certainly relevant and disturbing.

How might these broad observations about the nature of intra-branch politics in Washington -- the Beltway insiders' certainty that we need bold, decisive action from the President, and condemnation of Congress's tendency to shirk its responsibilities -- affect analysis of other policy issues?  For example, what insights might they provide about federal budget negotiations and the debt ceiling?  (You didn't see that coming, did you?)

If it is bold Presidential decision-making that we want, then a Presidential proclamation that the debt ceiling is non-binding would seem to fit the bill.  "I am willing to fulfill my constitutional duties, but Congress has made it impossible for me to do so.  Therefore, from now on, when Congress sends me spending and taxing bills, I will do what is necessary to make it happen.  If Congress wants to limit the debt, then it can do so responsibly by passing spending and taxing bills to make that happen.  But I will not do Congress's job, cutting spending programs that Congress itself has ordered me to fund."

This is a two-fer for the President.  He looks bold and decisive for the pundits, and he plays on the public's distaste for Congressional cowardice.  Why, then, can we be sure that everyone in Washington would reject this strategy?  Perhaps it is this simple: The public (currently) hates military intervention, but it loves (the idea of) spending cuts.  For the President to back off on Syria pissed off the pundits, but the public was ultimately on the President's side.  But if the President were to "blow past the debt ceiling," as it would surely be characterized by all the wise heads, he would alienate a debt-weary public.

Maybe.  Even so, one of the fundamental points driving the Buchanan/Dorf debt ceiling analysis is that the country would be ill-served by yet another consolidation of power in the presidency.  For the President to refuse to honor the debt ceiling is actually a Congress-affirming act, in exactly the sense that Congress fears most.  (House Republicans cannot even get themselves to vote for the specific spending cuts that are required by their own budget resolutions.)  Forcing Congress to make the decisions about spending priorities would be good for our system.

Perhaps the larger point here is that I have always seen the debt ceiling nonsense as being so crazy on the merits that it has to be a matter of "message mismanagement" by the White House.  In May 2011, I imagined Obama pointing out that he does not "want" a debt limit increase, which is how Republicans had framed the issue.  He could have said that he would refuse to sign a debt ceiling increase unless Congress gave him some other thing that he wanted, rather than giving House Republicans something when they balk at doing what is necessary.

All of which suggests that Obama -- who actually is having some success, thus far, saying "I will not negotiate over the debt ceiling -- could turn a Constitutional necessity into a political bonus.  Be bold, be daring, and make Congress look small.  Even better, make Congress look small by daring them to act like adults.  During the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, Bill Clinton said that he would issue more debt and dare Congress to impeach him.  Issuing more debt and daring Congress to do its own job would be even better.