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Former President Bill Clinton says that he would invoke the so-called constitutional option to raise the nation’s debt ceiling “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me” in order to prevent a default, should Congress and the President fail to achieve agreement before the August 2 deadline.
Sharply criticizing Congressional Republicans in an exclusive Monday evening interview with The National Memo, Clinton said, “I think the Constitution is clear and I think this idea that the Congress gets to vote twice on whether to pay for [expenditures] it has appropriated is crazy.”
Lifting the debt ceiling “is necessary to pay for appropriations already made,” he added, “so you can’t say, ‘Well, we won the last election and we didn’t vote for some of that stuff, so we’re going to throw the whole country’s credit into arrears.”
Having faced down the Republican House leadership during two government shutdowns when he was president — and having brought the country’s budget from the deep deficits left by Republican presidents to a projected surplus — Clinton is unimpressed by the GOP’s sudden enthusiasm for balanced budgets. But he never considered invoking the Fourteenth Amendment — which says “the validity of the US public debt shall not be questioned” – because the Republicans led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t threaten to use the debt ceiling as a weapon in their budget struggles with him.
According to Clinton, the Gingrich Republicans thought about that tactic before rejecting it — and Treasury officials who served under Clinton commissioned legal research on the president’s power to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval. While some legal scholars believe the Fourteenth Amendment requires Congress to fund the debt that results from its appropriations, and therefore empowers the president to raise the debt ceiling, others vehemently disagree.
Like President Obama, Clinton is a former law professor who once taught the Constitution, and he understands that the extent of presidential power remains highly controversial, whether the issue is waging war or increasing the debt.
“Here’s what happened, as I remember – but let me back up a second,” Clinton said. “I have read accounts of that time where people at Treasury have been interviewed, and they say they did look into [the president's authority to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval].” As for the Republicans, “they did think about doing that” — withholding approval of a higher limit — “and I knew they were thinking about it.” But the question ultimately did not arise for Clinton, he says, because his opponents in Congress decided “they didn’t want to get caught” in a position where they appeared to be repudiating the debt incurred by their own party’s two previous presidents.
“The reason that raising the debt limit is so unpopular is that people think you’re voting to keep [increasing] deficit spending, instead of voting to honor obligations that were already incurred,” he said. “I think [the Gingrich Republicans] figured I’d be smart enough to explain to the American people that they were refusing to pay for the expenses they had voted for when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were president. And that would make ‘em look bad.”
Obama could offer precisely the same explanation in the present circumstances, where most of the current debt can be traced to the profligate military spending and tax cuts of the last Bush administration. Just as the nation’s debt had tripled or quadrupled between 1981 and 1993, in the dozen years of Republican rule before Clinton’s first inauguration, as he points out, so the second Bush administration plunged the budget from surplus to deep deficit before Obama spent one penny on economic stimulus or anything else.
Although Clinton says that if he were in Obama’s place he would raise the debt ceiling without legislation – “if it came to that” — he believes the crisis will be resolved before August 2. “It looks to me like they’re going to make an agreement, and that’s smart.”
Photo: veni markovski via Flickr.com