Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York announced he will propose legislation to permanently take control of the debt limit away from Congress and give it to the president. It's a dictator's dream come true. The framers of the U.S. Constitution gave Congress alone power to borrow, tax, and decide how public revenues are spent. They wanted to prevent a president from spending excessively and saddling the public with huge debts. That's what the despotic kings of Europe had done.
Article 1 Sect. 8 states that "Congress shall have the Power To lay and collect Taxes…to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general welfare of the United States; To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” Schumer's proposal stuffs the Constitution in the waste basket. It would allow the president to raise the debt ceiling, subject only to a two-thirds vote of disapproval by both houses of Congress. That's no more constitutional than allowing the president to impose whatever taxes he wants, unless two-thirds of both houses disapprove.
The bargain rushed through Congress last week to reopen the government ceded control over the debt limit to the president until February 7. That temporary concession itself violated the Constitution, though Washington politicians ignored that fact as they hurried to make a deal. Schumer would make this unconstitutional arrangement permanent.
Schumer's proposal goes against 226 years of American history. Until 1917, the president had to ask Congress’s permission for each borrowing and frequently acquiesced to conditions. That year, Congress devised the debt ceiling, which allowed the president flexibility to borrow up to a certain amount in order to fund a world war. Ever since then, presidents have come to Congress once or twice a year for a debt ceiling hike, often making political concessions to get it. Until this year, Congress had never abdicated control over the nation’s indebtedness.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Congress can’t surrender its powers to another branch of government or change how laws are made. (I.N.S. v. Chadha, 1983) But that’s what the deal concocted last week did temporarily, and what Schumer's proposal would lock into place.
Once Congress cedes its control of borrowing, debate on the nation’s indebtedness will disappear from the headlines. How politically convenient for the pro-spending party and the spend-a-holic president.
Even with Congress monitoring this president’s borrowing, Obama has increased the national debt by over 60% in a mere five years. As of this August, federal debt exceeded our entire national output (GDP). Only a handful of other countries -- such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Japan, Iceland, and Jamaica -- share that badge of fiscal shame.
The public would already be feeling the impact if the president were not on an interest rate honeymoon. The average rate paid for government obligations is a tiny 1.98%, a third of what it was in 2000. When the rates go up, as they inevitably will, servicing the debt could claim 30% or 40% of tax revenues instead of the current 10%. Republican opposition is probably sufficient to stop Schumer's bill. Nevertheless, these persistent attempts to elude congressional control over borrowing signal a fundamental problem. Though members of Congress take an oath to uphold the Constitution, they don’t mean it.
Schumer claims his proposal will protect against a debt default when Congress and the president disagree. It’s a dangerous remedy. It plays into what President Obama apparently aspires to do -- govern by edict. As he has said numerous times, when Congress won't go along with what he wants, he will get it done on his own.
Our system of checks and balances was designed to protect us from such executive overreach.