Every day, we get closer and closer to the drop-dead date for raising the debt ceiling. As of the filing date for this column, it's less than a week away. Yet we are no closer to a solution.
Speaker Boehner rejected the Obama plan, which gave Republicans 80 percent of what they wanted, and even if Boehner's own plan passes the House, its DOA in the Senate. And Majority Leader Harry Reid's plan, which can probably squeak through the Senate, is DOA in the House.
Yes, Congress should do its job. But if, as it looks more and more likely, Congress fails to do its job by raising the debt ceiling, there's only one person who can save the country from defaulting on its obligations for the first time in history – and rescue all Americans from economic Armageddon.
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As confirmed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and major rating agencies, there's no doubt that an economic disaster will occur if the debt ceiling is not raised by Aug. 2. Our credit rating would sink. Investors would dump American paper, or demand higher interest rates. That, in turn, would mean higher interest rates on every home loan, student loan, car loan, or credit card. Pension plans and 401(k) plans would plummet in value. New business investment would freeze. Overnight, the United States would go from the safest place in the world to invest to a banana republic.
Meanwhile, as of midnight Aug. 2, the mighty United States would not have enough money to pay its outstanding bills. Only 60 cents in the bank for every dollar we owe, which means the Treasury Department will have to make some tough choices – and some Americans will not receive their monthly check. As is true for many American families today, there will simply not be enough money to go around. So anybody who depends on a federal check – 80 million Americans a month, including seniors on Social Security and Medicare, the poor on Medicaid, veterans on disability, defense contractors, highway contractors, air traffic controllers, national park rangers, food safety inspectors, border patrol officers, veterans hospital doctors and nurses – must be prepared to go without one.
That's why even Ronald Reagan pushed Congress to do its job and raise the debt ceiling. In a 1983 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr., R-Tenn., he wrote: "The full consequences of a default – or even the serious prospect of default – by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate." And that's why Congress raised the debt ceiling 18 times under President Reagan and seven times under President George W. Bush – with no strings attached. Only under President Obama, for obvious reasons, are Republicans playing politics, a dangerous game of politics, with the debt ceiling.
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Under the Constitution, as President Reagan realized, it's primarily the job of Congress to raise the debt ceiling. But the Constitution also contains a fail-safe provision, in case Congress fails to do its duty: a little-known provision of the 14th Amendment.
We remember the 14th Amendment, almost uniquely, for its monumental role in reversing the country's policy on slavery. Adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction amendments, it was the 14th that repudiated the Supreme Court's shameful 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision by recognizing all persons born or naturalized in the United States as full and equal citizens of the United States.
But Section 4 of the 14th Amendment also confirmed the legitimacy of all debt incurred by the U.S. Congress – and, therefore, the obligation of the United States to pay its debts. According to the Constitution, in other words, we cannot renege on our debts. We cannot do what the tea party wants us to do and walk away from commitments already made to seniors, contractors, or investors. As a great nation, we have to pay our bills. And if Congress won't, the president must.
Not all constitutional scholars agree that the 14th Amendment gives the president that authority. But there's only one way to find out. If Congress refuses to act, Obama should invoke the Constitution, raise the debt ceiling – and dare anyone who disagrees to sue.
It's his choice to make: Invoke the Constitution, or let America collapse. History is waiting, and begging, for Barack Obama to act.