Opinion

The Great Debate

The budget is its own ‘debt ceiling’

It could be that President Barack Obama and the Republican House of Representatives will again be able to avert fiscal and financial chaos through a short-term, ad hoc agreement on government funding and the “debt ceiling” limit. This would be good news for the world and its markets.

Going forward, however, we should repeal the 1917 Liberty Bond Act — the source of the “debt ceiling” regime that everyone’s talking about. This was effectively superseded by today’s budget regime, enacted under the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. Making this explicit by repealing the 1917 “debt limit” regime is preferable to leaving things merely implicit as they are now.

In what sense does the 1974 regime “implicitly” repeal the 1917 regime? To answer, begin with this apocryphal early 20th century statute familiar to some lawyers: This law supposedly imposed a strange, impossible requirement on two train conductors when their trains approach from opposite directions. The conductor of each train was to stop, await the other train’s passage and then continue the journey. If read literally, of course, this statute would leave trains idling indefinitely on the prairies, shutting down the railway. So the law cannot require what the “plain” language seems to suggest — nor would any court rule this way.

Something like this apocryphal impasse would confront the president if Congress did not raise the “debt ceiling” later this month.

On the one hand, Obama would be required — under the nation’s 1974 vintage budget law and continuing obligations — to keep paying the nation’s creditors and issue Treasury debt if tax revenues fell short of those payment commitments.

Why this shutdown isn’t like 1995

The political battlefield of the current government shutdown looks a lot like the last big shutdown of 1995. But major changes within the Republican Party in Congress — a weaker leadership, the demise of moderates and two decades of gerrymandering — could make this year’s endgame far harder.

Then as now, a rebellious Republican Congress used a budget bill to set up a deliberate confrontation with a Democratic president over spending priorities. GOP militants and radicals in the House – today’s wing nuts — bet that gridlock, disarray and the embarrassment of a shutdown would force the White House to give in.

Then, as now, the president defied the Republican brinksmanship and took the political risk of a government shutdown rather than bowing to the GOP’s surrender terms. Former President Bill Clinton enjoyed the sport of sparring with Congress and President Barack Obama, after giving in so many times in the past three years, has finally decided to dig in his heels.

Shutdown: A fight with no room for compromise

To end the government shutdown, all Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) needs to do is let the House of Representatives vote on a budget. It would pass within 30 minutes. Virtually all 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open, as would as many as 50 Republicans. An easy majority.

But no. Boehner and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are in thrall to Tea Party conservatives. Hard-line conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans. But those conservatives are threatening to lead an insurrection against party leaders if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they don’t go along with the Tea Party.

So what have we got? Minority government.

It’s outrageous when you think about it. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. Why? “Because we’re right, simply because we’re right,” one of them told the New York Times.

from David Rohde:

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

Obama’s flawed case for a Syria strike

We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

The Supreme Court’s race impatience

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

As Tuesday’s decision gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act made clear, it is June and a slim conservative majority of Supreme Court justices is again impatient with race.

Judging from President Barack Obama’s initial tepid, nonracial reaction, the first black president — whose reelection hinged in part on an expanded minority voting base — is impatient with the Supreme Court, race or both. And Congress is, well, stuck on Congress.

What we’re seeing from the Roberts Court’s recent race decisions, however, is an aggressive colorblindness, cloaked in hubris and federalism – or states’ rights. Working to do away with race at all costs, this colorblindness is administered through the court’s growing demands that any civil rights remedy be tailored with a narrowness approaching oblivion.

Congress should lead on Syria

Civilians hold up pictures of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and of his father, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad (R), as they celebrate in Qusair June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rami Bleibel

The American public is hearing it again – the drumbeat for intervention into a foreign land. Now it’s about Syria.

For decades, presidents have dominated the decision-making to commit American forces to battle. But today, as the country approaches another decisive moment, after a decade of problematic wars, perhaps the time has come for another decider, Congress, to enter the picture. The legislature must not just ask the tough questions but assume the leadership role. A novel idea? Not really. After all this is what the Constitution demands. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have led the beat calling for Washington to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria to give the rebels a chance to protect themselves while bringing down the Assad regime.

Seeking a smarter approach to the budget

Capitol Building in Washington, February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Sequestration grew out of a political impasse: Republicans refused to raise the government’s borrowing limit in 2011 without starting to bring spending under control, but Democrats refused to make choices about where to cut spending.

So the president devised sequestration, on the theory that cutting spending in such a painful and dumb way would force Republicans to raise taxes. Spending on entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare was mostly spared, but other programs, particularly defense, got across-the-board cuts.

As a result, thousands of federal workers, including border security and FBI agents, are being told to expect unpaid furloughs in the coming weeks and months. And that is only the beginning. If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Washington can now agree on, it is this: The sequester must be replaced.

The Internet’s man in Washington

How Darrell Issa, a San Diego Republican, became Web advocates’ closest, and most perplexing, ally in Congress.  Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) (R) speaks with aide during testimony to the House Rules Committee about a proposed vote to find U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

 

At the frenzied height of last winter’s unprecedented collective rebellion against the Stop Online Piracy Act it was easy to forget that there had once been a time when SOPA was both an obscure and obdurate little piece of legislation, a 78-page digital copyright bill that, both in and out of Washington, was considered inevitable, when it was considered at all.

The moment that seemed to change was on Dec. 15, 2011, the first day of the House Judiciary Committee’s consideration of SOPA’s text. Representative Jason Chaffetz, exasperated by Congress’ slap-dash efforts to rewrite the rules governing the online world, said SOPA was like amateurs doing home surgery.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Obama versus Congress on Guantanamo

A young girl holds a picture of Bobby Sands in a republican march to mark the 20th anniversary of the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland May 27. REUTERS/Archive

Barely a week after Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London, her ghost is stalking the corridors of power. At his press conference on Tuesday in Washington, President Barack Obama was asked about Guantánamo Bay prisoners refusing to eat. In doing so, the veteran CBS reporter Bill Plante, who asked the question, exposed a running sore in the Obama administration. He also invited direct comparison between Obama and Lady Thatcher – who faced a similar dilemma in 1981.

As a candidate in 2008, Obama, a distinguished Harvard-educated legal scholar known in the Senate for his common sense and humanity, promised to quickly close the prison for 166 terrorist suspects in the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The existence of a U.S. detention center that ignores the basic legal right of habeas corpus and the failure to bring prisoners to trial after so many years “erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles,” he said. He went on to repeat his pledge, yet five years on, Gitmo is still open for business.

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