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Grassley shows maturity in debate over the debt ceiling

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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As the deadline for increasing the debt ceiling nears, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley is one of few congressional Republicans considering reasonable measures rather than knee-jerk partisan antagonism.

One aspect of the bitter debate is crystallizing around the possibility of invoking a little-cited section of the 14th Amendment. Depending on the interpretation, the sentence might allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling on his own. It’s controversial; some congressional Republicans have threatened impeachment if Obama bypasses Congress.

But not Grassley. While he said he was personally in favor of the debt ceiling, he would relent if the Constitution was found to abrogate the concept.

Grassley is not a constitutional scholar and may not be correct on the potential role of the 14th Amendment in breaking through the debt stalemate; he is, however, correct in privileging the Constitution over partisan competition.

The bipartisan game of debt-ceiling chicken is nearing completion, less than one month from default day. Democrats are insisting on the necessity of raising the debt ceiling without significant cuts to social programs, combating the deficit through a combination of tax increases and moderate spending cuts; Republicans are refusing to consider tax increases, asking for major cuts from social programs. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, recently scaled back his negotiations, citing Obama’s refusal to take tax increases off the table; a weekend full of roundtable discussions may end without a bipartisan solution.

With little progress made in negotiations, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said late last month that default on the debt was not an option, given Section Four of the 14th Amendment, which states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” This prompted rampant speculation about whether Obama would ignore Congress entirely; the Treasury Department then clarified that Geithner was implying no such thing.

But the idea is still percolating through Washington, even if Press Secretary Jay Carney denied that the president was considering it. Opinion writers at the Washington Post, among other papers, have weighed in; U.S. representatives have quickly chosen sides, with Pete Olson, R-Texas, confirming that there are a few Republicans debating the possibility of impeachment in response.

Many legal scholars and political experts are skeptical about the legality of a potential ploy. “Not raising the debt limit does not necessarily mean that we will default on our debt or otherwise ‘question’ it,” University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle told the DI Editorial Board in an e-mail. “It would mean, however, that the government would have to prioritize its obligations.”

Hagle doesn’t believe that the 14th Amendment would allow the president to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, even though constitutional interpretations change with the times. At the most, he said, the amendment might be used to argue that the debt limit is unconstitutional.

Others have agreed, and some — including Harvard constitutional-law Professor Laurence Tribe — have suggested that using the 14th Amendment as a blunt instrument would declare an all-out war between the executive and the legislative branches of government. After the massive expansion of executive power under the Bush administration, which has only continued under Obama, the last thing the country needs is a further concentration of power in presidential hands.

Invoking the 14th Amendment is constitutionally dubious, but disagreements about the Constitution aren’t an impeachable offense. As Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution states, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

The Clinton affair aside, it’s obvious by the prioritizing of treason and bribery that impeachment was meant for criminal affairs that jeopardized the ability of a president to serve the country.

Disagreements over interpretations of the Constitution are neither illegal nor damning; the court system, not the process of impeachment, exists to settle the debate.

“Presidents, or their administrations, often take actions that are later held to be unconstitutional,” Hagle wrote. “Sometimes, folks can get fired or fined for such unconstitutional actions, but I don’t know that this would be enough to qualify for an impeachable offense.”

Grassley’s willingness to consider the constitutionality of the debt ceiling, instead of immediately reacting with outrage, places him, if not on the side of the angels, away from the reactionaries. In a time of partisan trench warfare over an extremely important issue, it’s refreshing to see our Iowa senator take a reasonable approach.

The Obama administration shouldn’t invoke the 14th Amendment. If it does, however, the president shouldn’t be impeached; as with any debate over constitutional powers delegated to the executive versus, legislative branches, the judiciary will serve as the final arbiter.


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