An Unfortunate Power Grab

A president tries to take an important weapon from Congress

JFMK School of Government

It is nearly Christmastime, which signals the forthcoming period of too many sweets, a host of Oscar-worthy movies, and, for those who stay in tune with politics after the November election, a contentious bit of political theatre. This year, the drama revolves around the fiscal cliff, an ominous increase in taxes and draconian spending cuts that would go into law if a compromise is not reached in the weeks ahead. Thus far, most of the action has focused on Speaker of the House John A. Boehner and potential concessions he and his Republican colleagues would be willing to make in order to prevent the worst possible outcome. However, President Obama has now reasserted himself as a major actor in the process. Unfortunately, he did so in a perfidious manner that could harm the American democratic spirit for years to come.

Fans of Washington dramaturgy surely remember the crisis that befell Washington last summer, when Congress threatened not to raise the debt ceiling, the limit on the amount of bonds the government can issue to finance its liabilities. The debt ceiling is back in the news, as the president has criticized Congress’s ability to wield such a powerful weapon. As we saw last year, the majority of the House has demonstrated an inclination to refuse to raise the ceiling, unless they reach a budgetary bargain consisting of tax and spending cuts. The president has expressed frustration with this aspect of governance and has proposed ridding the ability to control the debt ceiling from Congress’ arsenal. Such a scheme reflects brazen presidential overreach and would be deleterious to the American process of compromise.

It is not difficult to understand why the president wants control over the debt ceiling all to himself. After all, it has been shown to be an incredibly puissant armament. But Congress’s possession of it is strictly outlined in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, wherein “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Nowhere in Article II, which lays out the powers of the executive branch and the president, would one be able to find any reference to paying off the debt. Congress holds sole responsibility for the nation’s finances, while the president’s role is primarily military.

Although it is admirable of the president to desire swift compromise, such is not the nature of the governing process. The Founding Fathers so kindly gave us three branches of government for a reason: so that there can be heated debate and eventual compromise. Removing the need for compromise would set too much power in one post: that of the presidency. Discourse over the country’s bills is only healthy, especially since the topic had been ignored for so long.

Bestowing control over the debt ceiling to one individual would set a remarkably dangerous precedent. How much a government can and should borrow and spend is an incredibly important issue. It is not when that should be taken lightly, even by someone with an electoral mandate. While voters obviously express their preferences by voting for president, they also elect the Congress. Ignoring their preferences would be a sign of grave disrespect for the citizens of this nation.

While Congress can obviously deny Obama’s power grab, doing so would undoubtedly warrant a presidential veto. If that were to happen, it is likely that the president’s allies would work against the interests of their governing body and fight any attempt at override it. This would be a mistake similar to if the Democrats in Congress were to enact comprehensive filibuster reform. While such actions would give them advantages in controlling the Senate and the White House, it would put them at a disadvantage at the time Republicans inevitably come back to power. Unless they think they have captured a permanent majority (which after 2008, they believed that they had), they would be wise not to give substantially more power to the Oval Office.

It is likely that the president will ultimately get his way, if not by passing this measure of overreach, then by scaring off Republicans from their demands. This is an unfortunate sequence of events for a president who has already demonstrated a willingness to exceed the powers of his forebears: It is dangerous enough that one man controls what enemies to target in drone strikes. America would do best to remember the spirit of compromise and keep Congress, as well as the president, in the room to discuss the nation’s credit card.

John F. M. Kocsis ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.