On Oct. 16, Congress gave President Obama a blank check. That’s right. For the next three months, our chief executive will be able to increase the national debt as much as he wants, and as a practical matter, no one will be able to stop him.
A newly enacted law, H.R. 2775, temporarily suspends the U.S. government’s statutory debt limit and shifts Congress’ borrowing power to the president. This is a radical and unprecedented delegation of power that should trouble every American.
The only good news is the new law expires on Feb. 8.
The author of the little-noticed but awesome delegation of power was none other than the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
The “McConnell Mechanism,” as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has dubbed it, was quietly slipped into the debt ceiling bill with no public discussion or warning.
The device gives the president the ability to unilaterally increase the national debt while giving Congress a new, streamlined parliamentary procedure with which to try to block the move. If the president decides to borrow more money than Congress thinks acceptable, Congress can try to check him by passing a special “resolution of disapproval” using expedited procedures. If the resolution passes, the president can veto it. Congress can then override his veto, provided it can muster a two-thirds supermajority in each chamber — a very high bar.
Thanks to this mechanism, incumbent lawmakers can now cast a show vote to overturn a presidential debt hike, knowing that the attempt will almost certainly fail.
This is a palpable violation of the constitutional provision that lodges the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States” exclusively in Congress (Article I, Section 8, Clause 2).
It’s also fiscally insane. We’re drowning in red ink. Last week, the national debt surpassed $17 trillion. Congress has made an additional $100 trillion in promises of future spending that we have no way to pay for, except with massive spending cuts, massive tax hikes or currency-destroying inflation. If anything, we need to lower the debt ceiling, not raise it to infinity.
What was Mr. McConnell thinking? Simple. He wanted to shield incumbents from being held politically accountable for future debt hikes — and to avert future debt ceiling staredowns like the one we witnessed this past fortnight.
The McConnell Mechanism is technically not new. First enacted in mid-2011 as part of the Budget Control Act, it was a product of the big, Tea Party-driven debt ceiling fight of that year. Thankfully, that first version was temporary: It expired last year when the national debt reached a specified dollar amount.
Last February, Mr. Obama signed a bill that removed the dollar cap, effectively eliminating the debt limit altogether — but happily, this, too, was only temporary. In a sense, Congress had merely changed the form of the debt limit from a fixed number of dollars to a fixed amount of time. The lack of an upper limit was troubling, but Congress could still check any excessive borrowing by a simple majority in each chamber.
Now, thanks to the new law, the president may increase the national debt on his own initiative, without limit. This is unprecedented — and terrifying.
According to the law’s defenders, the president’s power is still limited; he may only borrow to pay for bills already “authorized by law” (i.e., by Congress). But wait. Who gets to define what’s “authorized by law”? The president.
Could Congress override him? Not easily. It takes two-thirds of each chamber to override a veto. The courts could only step in if someone can show “standing” — a direct injury from the president’s action. Who could prove direct personal harm from presidential borrowing?
Mr. Obama has shown himself more than willing to stretch or ignore laws that impede his political ends. Just this year, he has administratively suspended statutory requirements of his own health care law, including income fraud checks, consumer financial protections and the employer mandate.
No, the “authorized by law” limitation isn’t sufficient to stop an unprincipled chief executive.
Could last week’s bill be part of an unfolding plan? First, Congress’ power to control borrowing is “temporarily” removed. Next, any upper limit on that borrowing is “temporarily” eliminated. Then, with those two precedents safely established, both policies are enacted at once. Just one small step remains to pull off a fiscal coup: make the arrangement permanent.
We must not let that happen.
The Constitution lodges the borrowing power exclusively in Congress for a reason: No one person can safely be trusted with that much power. The McConnell Mechanism is dangerous and should be repealed now — before Mr. Obama can wield it.
Dean Clancy, a former senior White House budget official, is vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks.