Can the Constitution Solve the Debt Crisis?


President Obama is engaged in an intellectual civil war with Congressional Republican leadership and their Tea Party Caucus. Unlike the battles being fought in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, the standoff between Republicans and President Obama is not a war of religious ideology and weapons of steel, but a politically manufactured farce waged for one purpose: to undermine the Obama presidency by threatening the economic solvency of the United States of America.

The debate over the debt-ceiling increase — which until now had been a routine, procedural vote — has become an overpoliticized debacle, due in large part to the viscerally partisan climate that the Tea Party movement brought to Washington in the wave of the midterm election. Republican recalcitrance became so stifling that it sucks any oxygen from otherwise productive, balanced debate.


With regard to the debt ceiling in particular, the GOP has been successful in framing the parameters of the conversation by linking any possible revenue increases through the elimination of tax loopholes for the rich (Obama's proposal) to sharp decreases in government spending and social benefits (the GOP's firm stance). By restricting the debate in this way, Republicans showed their true colors: They would rather reduce programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security, with no consideration of tax increases for the nation's wealthiest individuals and billionaire corporations.

And Republicans do this despite being fully aware of the potential consequences of a default: Banks will not provide loans, mortgage rates will rise exponentially, government jobs will disappear, military personnel will go unpaid and senior citizens will cease to receive benefits. The underemployed would be joined by a new hybrid of discouraged, disaffected worker.

Obama made his case plain to the American public on Monday when he explained that this was a political debate, not one of moral consciousness. The debt-ceiling increase — an agreement to cover payment for debts already incurred — had been extended 18 times under Reagan's tenure and seven times during the George W. Bush presidency.

So, does President Obama have a fail-safe option if he can't achieve a satisfactory compromise? Yes. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — best known for securing the rights of former slaves through birthright citizenship, due process and equal protection — also has a little-known fourth section that explicitly declares, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned."

Obama could unilaterally issue an executive order extending the debt ceiling, thus bypassing Congress and its political morass. The radical right-wingers in the GOP who sought to create a constitutional crisis would be silenced and would have to answer for their actions at the polls come November 2012.

Clyburn saw it as a fulfillment of presidential duty to protect the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. "Whatever discussions about the legality of that can continue," Clyburn said. "I believe that something like this will bring calm to the American people and will bring needed stability to our financial markets."


Initial reports from White Press Secretary Jay Carney suggest that this is not a choice Obama prefers — partly because of potential legal challenges and the fact that bonds issued after an executive order may remain subject to higher interest rates or ratings downgrades by Moody's and Standard & Poor's.

Yet history reveals that former presidents have already taken similar actions. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (which guarantees a prisoner the right to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment) by invoking the "necessities of state." Harry Truman famously issued an executive order to racially integrate the armed forces when Congress remained divided and Southern representatives were vehemently opposed.


The debt-ceiling debate is a political power struggle at a time when governance is necessary. The nation continues to struggle with the most harrowing recession since the Great Depression, and the last thing the average American family needs is an economy worsened by higher interest rates, fewer job opportunities and reduced social welfare programs. Without fail, that is the dark wonderland that Republican leaders would render inevitable through their irresponsible inaction.

Ironically, one of the first activities taken up by the newly elected, Republican-led Congress in January was to have the entire text of the Constitution read aloud on the floor of the House Chamber. They did this in their attempt to apply a "Founding Fathers" litmus test in the wake of Obama's health care bill that Tea Party candidates had decried as unconstitutional. It seems curious, therefore, that those same supposedly puritan idealists are now holding our government hostage and ignoring constitutional principles in a selfish attempt to gain political advantage.


Comedian Bill Maher, in a recent interview with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, said there is a myth that Republicans and Democrats are equally obstinate, when it is clear that Republicans are purposely bent on defeating the president in 2012 and are willing to use everything at their disposal to achieve that goal. I agree. Barack Obama, despite criticism and loss of support from his liberal base, has consistently sought to achieve bipartisan compromise.

It's time to try a different approach. How can Obama end the stalemate? By calling the Republicans' bluff. Our nation is bitterly divided over questions about its political and economic future. In times of crisis like this, only brave, defiant leadership can serve as a sufficient answer to self-righteous cowardice.


Edward Wyckoff Williams is an author, a columnist, a political and economic analyst for MSNBC and NBC Universal, and a former investment banker. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.