His own petard

Mitch McConnell gets too cute, winds up filibustering his own debt-ceiling proposal.

The Congress appropriates money. The Congress levies taxes. (Subject, of course, to the President’s veto power.) The President must spend appropriated money and collect the revenue due under the tax laws. That’s part of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed. He can’t collect a nickel more than is due or spend a nickel less than appropriated.

Expenditures minus revenues constitute this year’s  deficit. Last year’s debt plus this year’s deficit determines this year’s debt. In order to pay the bills Congress has ordered him to incur, the President needs to borrow money.  So having Congress pass a separate piece of legislation authorizing the President to borrow the money the Congress has already told him to spend makes no logical sense.

Barack Obama’s proposal – based on an election-year stunt dreamed up by Mitch McConnell during the last artificial debt crisis –  that the President be given the power to extend the debt ceiling subject to Congressional veto doesn’t make much more sense logically than the current system: it merely gives the Congress the power to order that the United States of America default on its lawful obligations. But at least it shifts the initiative in a way that would probably end the recurrent hostage situations arising under the new law: the Congress would have to actively order the Executive to default rather than being able to do so passive-aggressively. And it could matter enormously if Obama sticks to his public commitment not to negotiate with the hostage-takers in the future.

McConnell, who cares more about a potential Tea Party challenger than he does about the health of the economy or the good credit (not to mention the national honor) of the United States, decided to play a trick on Harry Reid. McConnell proposed to bring the President’s version of McConnell’s own proposal up for a vote, assuming (not unreasonably, based on the historical record) that the cowardice of some of his Democratic colleagues was as deep as his own fathomless scoundrelism and that the proposal therefore couldn’t command a majority in the Senate. McConnell could then make fun of Reid for not being able to muster the votes for the President’s proposal.

But Reid, after hastily counting backbones, seems to have found at least 50 of them present and accounted for, and proposed to take McConnell up on his offer: at which point McConnell decided to filibuster the very provision on which he had asked for a vote.

Nothing could better sum up either the profound unseriousness of the contemporary Republican Party or the utter folly of allowing that party to convert the Senate from an body where majority rule was tempered by extensive powers of delay, and a very occasional filibuster, into an institution where a super-majority is required for every bit of routine business.

Now that Reid knows he has a majority for ending the debt-ceiling nonsense, I hope he brings it up at every opportunity, and in particular insists that it be part of any “Fiscal Cliff” deal. And I hope that the newly vertebrate Senate Democrats continue to stand erect in January for major filibuster reform.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

50 thoughts on “His own petard”

  1. I’m sure this will be just as effective as when democrats decided to support the Heritage health care plan.

  2. “The Congress appropriates money. The Congress levies taxes. (Subject, of course, to the President’s veto power.) The President must spend appropriated money and collect the revenue due under the tax laws. That’s part of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed. He can’t collect a nickle more than is due or spend a nickle less than appropriated.”

    Congress also borrows money, just as it appropriates it, or levies taxes. Not borrowing money Congress hasn’t authorized him to borrow is no less a part of taking care the laws are faithfully executed. He can no more borrow a nickel more than Congress says, than collect a nickel more of taxes, or spend a nickel less than appropriated.

    There are THREE commands here, equally binding, and if they conflict, three ways out. None of which make any more or less sense than the others, because they are all three of them born of the need to resolve a contradiction.

    So let’s not pretend that there’s something different about the President borrowing money without the permission of Congress. There isn’t, save in one simple respect, these words from the 14th amendment: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

    Anybody who loans the nation money Congress hasn’t authorized to be borrowed is a fool, for the Constitution would not demand any such debt be honored.

    1. Even the British Parliament never claimed the power to legislate a logical contradiction. If I say you can tax only $X, but must spend $X+Y dollars, I have ordered you to borrow $Y dollars.

      I realize you think people who invest in US Bonds are fools, but I think you seriously underestimate how much American prosperity depends on not treating them like suckers.

    2. Mr. Bellmore, of course, continues to pretend that his fellow travelers in the Republican party didn’t spend (and commit the United States to continue spending) $2 trillion on a war of choice. That was magic military money that somehow doesn’t have to be accounted for in the budget or debt calculations and of course never never never has to be paid back via taxes.


      I know, I know: Mr. Bellmore is a libertarian, not a Republican. He just votes Republican 99.999999% of the time.

      1. And Cranky, of course, continues to pretend the authorization for that war wasn’t bipartisan. Unlike, say, the recent war in Libya, which didn’t get authorized At All.

        1. Au contraire, Brett, Cranky’s point isn’t about how or why we keep getting involved in “wars” or other military actions. Rather, it’s about the unrealistic approach to funding them.

        2. If “bipartisan” means that at least some representatives from both parties voted for it, then yes the Iraq war AUMF was “bipartisan”.

          On the other hand, if it had been up to the Democrats as a whole, the AUMF would have been rejected. Here are the votes by party in the House:

          * Republicans: 215 for, 6 against
          * Democrats: 82 for, 126 against

          If the House as a whole had voted the way the Democrats voted, the AUMF resolution would have been rejected and we never would have embarked on that disaster.

          1. “If “bipartisan” means that at least some representatives from both parties voted for it, then yes the Iraq war AUMF was “bipartisan”.”

            That does appear to be the standard definition; Most “bipartisan” bills favored by Democrats, (McCain/Feingold, anyone?) have passed with many fewer Republican votes than that. 39% is pretty darn bipartisan by that standard, if you ask me.

            Which is worse, an administration that goes to war with a majority of Congress approving, but only 39% of the minority’s House members, or President who goes to war without Congress’ approval? What was the vote on the Libya AUMF, again?

          2. = = = Brett Bellmore says: December 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

            “If “bipartisan” means that at least some representatives from both parties voted for it, then yes the Iraq war AUMF was “bipartisan”.”

            That does appear to be the standard definition; […] = = =

            We all know how particular Mr. Bellmore is about definitions:

            = = = = = = Brett Bellmore says: May 12, 2012 at 1:17 pm


            As for Obama not being an addict, isn’t it conventional to refer to people who illegally use illegal drug as “addicts”? Sure, I know that’s not accurate terminology. But we’re talking politics here,[…] = = = = = =


          3. cranky, you know as well as i do that brett isn’t any more likely to respond to this challenge than he is to either of the challenges we’ve made farther down in the comments. his answer to serious challenges to his credibility (that tattered old rag) and his intellectual honesty (that threadbare cloak) is silence, whether we approve of that answer or not. i wonder if you continue to challenge him for the same reason i do–a desire to maintain a record of his offenses against the notion of logical and reasoned discussion.

          4. navarro,
            Back in the late Carter – early Reagan era I used to have Republican and Libertarian [1] friends with whom I could have reasonable political and social discussions. They advanced many claims about US society and economics and many criticisms of New Deal/Great Society programs and contemporary Democratic Party policies. Some of which I agreed with although in retrospect only about 20%-30% of those right-wing criticisms were valid [2]. In turn they listened to my points and criticisms and occasionally changed their minds or did different things on the basis thereof. In fairness they were the insurgents, so they weren’t primed to accept criticism during the flower of their insurgency, but they were still somewhat open-minded. Any many of them were socially libertarian, holding a “live and let live philosophy toward issues such as gay rights.

            The modern Republican-Libertarian Party, and particularly the hard Radical Right, is no such animal. It runs on the tactics of DeLay (convicted criminal), Gingrich (fraud), Limbaugh (plea-bargained felon), and Norquist (thief and wrecker). Its primary tactic is the lie, and then the Big Lie when necessary. Its only goal seems to be that expressed so well by Bain Capital: loot, burn, and hand the proceeds over to the Big Daddy, and cares nothing for where our society as a whole might end up. Of course to achieve these ends it has allied itself with the US’ religious taliban, and has not only abandoned all pretense of social libertarianism but has joined the attack on the Other with glee (Birtherism Mr. Bellmore?). And othere is their war mongering, Spartan-worship, and love of torture.

            The acolytes and useful idiots of the modern Republican Party have become masters of eristic argument, appearing in every venue great to tiny to attack attack attack with anti-logic, invective, and ad hominem accusations and filth. Mr. Bellmore is a perfect example of this species [3]. His arguments at first appear reasonable: something we might have heard from a Reaganaut or Kemp follower of the 1980s. Then he starts working in the falsehoods, the “death panel”-type tropes, the pretzel logic, and the accusations (“liberal”) and lies. Finally, while claiming to be operating on fundamental premises, reason, and logic, he confounds his own arguments and contradicts himself (sometimes in the same subthread), and when challenged on this behavior silently slips away to the next thread to repeat the process (although sometimes he goes back a week or two later and slips in a last dissimulation into a dead thread).

            Mr. Bellmore has eventually been banned from every academic and most liberal sites where he has undertaken this process, save here. I’m sure he feels that this vindicates his hatred of all things “lib”. The managers of this site have charitably seen fit to allow Mr. Bellmore to continue to participate, which may be the right decision but does put one in mind of the saying about selling one’s opponent the rope he will use to hang you. Be that as it may, I came to the conclusion that it was best to simply let Mr. Bellmore’s words and contradictions speak for themselves, so when I’m not too busy I undertake to provide the necessary links.


            [1] Somewhat sincere libertarians in those days, and although I figured out the flaws in their philosophy in a few months their arguments weren’t totally unreasonable, nor did they subordinate themselves to the hard right as today’s Glibertarians do.

            [2] Thanks for nothing neoliberals. Yes, I’m looking at you Charles Peters, Robert Reich, and Bill Clinton.

            [3] And a volunteer at that. On Drum and Marshall’s various blogs one often sees what are pretty clearly paid (or synthetic) right-wing counter-bloggers, but ISTM that Bellmore does it just for the joy.

          5. cranky, i appreciate the depth with which you responded. in many ways your journey sounds very similar to mine. in my lifetime i have seen my state, texas, move from being in the control of democrats (admittedly conservative democrats but democrats with an appreciation for the new deal and how that has saved america from the worst of the economic policies that preceded it) to being in the control of republicans who would rather take $5 billion from the schools than reduce the tax abatements for their business friends or spend any part of the “rainy day fund” with which they bribe businesses to come to texas and pay minimum wage jobs. what most offends me about brett are his offenses against reason and logic. his statement below “The existence of an ‘argument’ doesn’t obligate you to take it seriously.” coming so soon on the heels of his cold fury at being reminded of how ridiculous the arguments of the birthers were and his insistence, at the same time, that it is only by taking such tendentious arguments seriously that one can prevent conspiracy theories from erupting is a perfect example of such offenses.

            thanks again.

    3. The debt ceiling is a work-around in itself. Prior to 1917, every bond issue had to approved by Congress. The debt ceiling is already a pre-approval of bond issues up to a limit to save Congress from approving all bond issues. The debt ceiling already delegates Congress’s authority to the Executive.

      So to delegate with provision to veto the issuance of bonds to cover appropriated funds [as Mr Bellmore points out Congress appropriates and the Executive must spend]is merely a difference of degree and not of kind. Functionally it is identical to the process up to 2011.

      Investors have shown a near infinite capacity for foolishness. They simply demand higher interest.

  3. I don’t see why any particular backbone is required on the part of the Democratic senate majority. The debt ceiling crisis was highly unpopular and scared the American capitalist class.

    1. So, why did the Democratic PR apparatus go into hibernation during the “crisis,” leaving the dissemination of events to be filtered through the “we report, you decide” obfuscation Brigade?

      During the past several decades nothing has been more infuriating than watching the utter incompetence of the Dem’s marketing campaigns. “Willie Horton,” and ”Harry & Louise” were but two examples of how easy it really is to get a message out there. The Republicans chirp, “Death Tax,” and the Dems respond with an MIT dissertation on String Theory.

      When will we finally learn the ultimate truth? “Politics, it ain’t rocket science.”

      1. Shooter,
        The Obama campaign did an excellent job of persuading the electorate that Mitt Romney was really myself. Excellent marketing, even if it is a damn lie. Although there is a videotape of Mr. Romney claiming to share my values, I live abstemiously.

        Bah, humbug!

  4. On any fair reading of legislative process and of legislative responsibility, borrowing authorization rides in the saddle together with appropriation. Whether implicit or explicit, the authorization to spend for specified purposes presupposes either cash or credit on which to draw. Our separation of spending and borrowing is artificial. It doesn’t actually work like a credit limit on a credit card because while I decide what to use my card for and how much to spend, I can’t set the credit limit; the bank does that and I operate within it (or not, but we don’t need to go there). But Congress is both me and the bank here– it not only decides what to spend money on and how much, it also sets its own credit limit. It’s responsible for both the overall budget balance and the individual spending decisions, in other words. These are separate actions only, as far as I can see, because of Congress’s own procedural limitations. There are no good balance-of-power or other reasons I can think to make them distinct actions.

    If it would help to be explicit, a logical approach would be a simple clause in every appropriation bill that would authorize any and all borrowing necessary to finance the authorized expenditures, on the full faith and credit of the United States. I do think that’s already implicit, but redundancy probably wouldn’t hurt anything. In this climate it isn’t likely we’ll see a simple solution like this, unfortunately. But I think think the courts aren’t likely to touch this with a ten-foot pole either. As long as present leverage can be gained from separating appropriation and borrowing, we’re probably stuck with it. But it’s dumb. The time to worry about borrowing is at appropriation time.

  5. Seriously, why doesn’t this reasoning imply that every spending bill carries with it an implicit authorization to levy enough taxes to pay for it, instead? Or that every revenue bill carries with it an implicit authorization to cut spending if revenues don’t reach it? The reasoning is exactly the same: It’s a three legged stool, you can level it by adjusting any of the three legs, and messing with any of the three explicitly violates laws passed by Congress.

    I think the answer is fairly obvious: You don’t dare impose a tax Congress didn’t enact, that’s the stuff of enraged mobs with pitchforks. You don’t want to reduce spending, that’s how you buy votes. So you focus exclusively on the leg of the stool which you least mind messing with. That leaves borrowing money.

    But all your reasoning can’t make that alternative less unconstitutional. When Congress enacts a contradiction, the President is left with no constitutional course of action. Which unconstitutional action he undertakes is scarcely dictated by the Constitution it must inevitably violate. Let’s not pretend the choice of borrowing, and only borrowing, is in any way compelled.

    I will note this: The ruling declaring that the President may not refuse to spend funds contrary to law was made in the context of sufficient funds being available. It’s quite possible the courts would arrive at a different conclusion were there simply not enough money in the Treasury to engage in that spending.

    1. Brett, you don’t show any evidence of even having begun to think this through.

      You acknowledge that Congress has passed three mutually incompatible directives to the president (collect X revenues, disburse Y expenditures, but don’t borrow enough to cover the amount of [Y minus X]).

      You also acknowledge that there are only three ways the president could resolve this contradiction: collect more than X revenues, spend less than Y dollars, or borrow enough to make up the difference between Y and X.

      Now … which of those would represent the *smallest* expansion of presidential power? Hint: it’s the one where he doesn’t get to make his own decisions about who to tax or whose spending to cut.

      1. J, you’re wrong about Brett. He HAS thought it through, very thoroughly. He points out (correctly) that Congress creates a dilemma by passing several laws that are inconsistent with each other, and then sits back contentedly, waiting for the President to try to solve it by choosing which of several laws to violate. It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors–there’s no “correct” action to take.

        I think Brett’s assessment of why one alternative Presidential action is less distasteful than the other two is also correct, but for his absurd characterizations them. After all, Brett, raising taxes on rich folks isn’t going to raise an angry pitchfork-carrying mob with torches, and it both parties have been spending in excess of revenue. Then again, it was only the Dems who reversed that trend when we had a healthy economy.

        But that’s not really relevant to the question of “constitutionality” of any particular actions. So the question remains: can Congress pass conflicting laws, then saddle the President with a Morton’s Fork of Constitutional choices? Or alternatively, can the President merely carry out the laws that are passed, under the theory that any conflict is resolved by recency–the newer supercedes the prior?

        1. How’s this for a resolution:

          The president declares that Congress has given him three incompatible sets of directions. Rather than choose a single one to break, he’s going to solve the crisis by a mix of 1/3 spending cuts (decided by him), 1/3 new taxes (decided by him), and 1/3 new debt. He should then note that if anyone disagrees, they’re welcome to take it to the Court.

          Anticipating that the Court might say that one (or two) of the three are unconstitutional, the President would also provide fallback scenarios to resolve the problem using only the other two (or one) remaining options. If Congress won’t budge, and the Court rules that all three options for fixing Congress’s mess are unconstitutional, then the president will fall back on the platinum-coin option.

          OK, maybe it’s far-fetched, but it appeals to me.

        2. The argument then is, given a trilemma, which of three routes is least unconstitutional? Lincoln faced similar decisions. Jefferson bought Louisiana and then tidied up the details.

          Consider this discussion: http://www.columbialawreview.org/how-to-choose-the-lease-unconstitutional-option/

          Mr Bellmore’s position seems to informed in part by Bruce Barlett’s NYT Op-Ed: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/the-debt-limit-is-the-real-fiscal-cliff/

          Where he errs. IMHO, is to not entertain a least unconstitutional option. There are plentiful precedences for taking such a course. As McConnell’s buffoonery demonstrates the willingness to take such bold action would very likely collapse the obstructionism like a house of cards; In January, 20 horrified House Republicans would bring the solution to the floor on a Motion to Consider and pass it, Tea Party be damned.

          1. I regard unconstitutionality as being somewhat like pregnancy: You either are or aren’t.

            And I’d hardly say I’m content with the situation. Rather, I’m simply aware that nobody is going to go with my preferred option, massive statutory spending cuts, seeing the remaining options as equally undesirable.

            However, were I to opine on which unconstitutional course of action is least unconstitutional, it would unquestionably be impoundment.

            In the face of contradictory statutes, a violation of the “take care” clause is utterly inevitable no matter what he does, and so it cancels out when addressing which course of action to take. He has three courses he may take:

            Unconstitutionally usurp Congress’ power to levy taxes, (And violate the take care clause.)

            Unconstitutionally usurp Congress’ power to borrow, (And violate the take care clause.)


            Illegally violate spending statutes by impoundment, (And thus violating the take care clause.)

            Given a choice of violating clauses of the Constitution, and violating statutes, the President must always chose violating the statute. Not spending appropriated funds is the “least unconstitutional” course of action, because it “only” involves statutory violations in addition to violating the take care clause, while the other two options require constitutional violations in addition to violating the take care clause.

            In terms of pregnancy, you’re either pregnant or you’re not, but I suppose one could say that a woman having twins is “more” pregnant than a woman having only one baby…

          2. Brett, while you may regard unconstitutionality as a pure binary issue, most legal scholars discern gradations.
            What is a court to do when (hypothetically – I don’t have an example on hand) two provisions of the Constitution conflict?
            How does the court balance competing interests?

            And surely, while it is unconstitutional to keep a man locked up for 5 years without trial, it’s even less constitutional to lock him up for 10 years?
            And perfectly constitutional to lock him up for 48 hours without trial. Yet somewhere between 2 days and 5 years it changes.

            n.b. the spending statutes become a constitutional question when they are payment of debts That’s the 14th I believe.

      2. which of those would represent the *smallest* expansion of presidential power?

        I’d say that’s more important than the out-of-the-blue rule that violating a statute is less bad than violating the Constitution.

        I’d also say that the inconsistency leaves it in the hands of the President, so he gets to do whatever he wants, and that it’s not at all unconstitutional for him to do so. There is nothing unconstitutional about not performing impossible tasks.

        1. “I’d say that’s more important than the out-of-the-blue rule that violating a statute is less bad than violating the Constitution.”

          Scarcely out of the blue, or else courts would be striking down constitutional amendments for violating statutes.

          1. Some things:

            1. You ignore my second point.

            2. Borrowing in excess of the debt limit can also be seen as violating a statute – specifically the debt limit statute. Both the debt ceiling and the the amount to be spent are statutes exercising Congressional powers. Borrowing more than allowed by statute is no more a usurpation of Congress’ power to borrow than spending less than instructed by statute is a usurpation of Congress’ power to spend.

    2. The other point (as to why people claim that obeying the constitution requires the president to ignore the debt limit) is this: there’s at least a reasonable interpretation of the 14th amendment that justifies this action. There’s no obvious legal justification for the president unilaterally raising taxes or unilaterally deciding which of Congress’s spending directives he will follow. Now, you might not agree with that interpretation of the 14th amendment, but pretending that it doesn’t exist is just disingenuous.

      1. I’m not pretending it doesn’t exist. There are “arguments”, if you want to flatter them with that name, for anything under the Sun. There are arguments that the 16th amendment wasn’t really ratified. There are arguments that court rulings aren’t valid if there’s a gold fringe on the flag in the court room. There are all sorts of asinine arguments.

        The existence of an ‘argument’ doesn’t obligate you to take it seriously.

          1. having thought further about brett’s comment– “The existence of an ‘argument’ doesn’t obligate you to take it seriously.”– and the near fury with which he took a directly contrary position in that thread to which i provided a link makes me wonder why i, or any other potential interlocutor of brett’s, should waste so much time acting as if brett is an honest partner to debate. the level of intellectual dishonesty brett is showing here is staggering in its magnitude.

        1. Sorry, Brett, but that won’t wash. There is in fact a serious and reasonably widely held argument based on the 14th amendment, whereas there are *no* serious arguments that I’m aware of for allowing the president to unilaterally invent new taxes, or to pick and choose which Congressional directives about spending he can ignore.

          So whether you agree on the 14th or not, the support for it is certainly stronger than your other two alternatives, right?

          And as I pointed out, of your three options, it represents the *smallest* expansion of presidential power. I would have thought that would be an important consideration to someone who claims to be a libertarian! Would you prefer to see *more* of Congress’s power transferred to the executive branch?

    3. It seems to me that if Brett were to take his argument seriously each spending bill would be required to come along with a description of exactly where the funds to pay for it will come from. Resolved, that Head Start shall be funded to the tune of X, the money to come 65% from the income tax, 10% from tarrifs, and 25% from the issuance of bonds.

      That seems absurd to me on the face of it.

      1. It’s not absurd. That’s actually how it works in practically any other country (well, any other democratic country with an actual separation of powers).

        For example, here’s the German federal budget for 2011. §2 (1) says: “The Federal Ministry of Finance is authorized to borrow up to the amount of 48 400 000 000 Euro to cover expenses for the financial year 2011.” §2 (2) through §2 (10) authorize additional smaller discretionary loans (generally to ensure proper cash flow in the case of revenue shortfalls) and set the general conditions for borrowing.

    4. Brett, nobody is saying that “the choice of borrowing, and only borrowing, is in any way compelled”. Literally, nobody. Including the White House (the White House’s last stated solution was to reduce spending). There are some legal scholars who argue that the 14th amendment makes borrowing the least harmful option, but even they aren’t arguing that it is compelled. The argument is that Congress creates a logical impossibility which requires the president to violate at least one constitutional commandment.

      You’re beating up a strawman here. You’re making stuff up that you think people are saying rather than discussing what they are actually saying because the made-up claims mesh nicely with your conspiracy theories (“buying votes”) and the facts don’t.

      What people ARE suggesting is that, as in practically every other civilized country where there is a parliament passing budget acts, the budget act should include all the necessary revenue provisions, including borrowing. Or, if Congress can’t be expected to deal with its responsibilities, to put a mechanism in place that allows the president to borrow accordingly.

      Congress does not authorize borrowing as part of the budget [1] that because members of Congress like to disavow any responsibility for the deficit, and the regular debt ceiling grandstanding allows them to pretend that it’s actually the president who is responsible for the deficit, and not they as the ones who are passing appropriation bills in the first place, requiring the president to “faithfully execute” them.

      [1] Historically, that was not always the case, but it’s the situation now.

      1. An additional point: revenue bills set tax rates, not tax receipts. The receipts depend on how the economy does, how effective the taxmen are, how much effort taxpayers put into avoidance. In addition, a lot of spending consists of entitlements, including interest payments, pensions, and social insurance, and similarly can´t be known precisely in advance. It´s technically impossible to specify in a spending bill or complete budget exactly how it will be financed. The executive must be given flexible borrowing authority, everywhere.

        1. That borrowing needs cannot be predicted 100% does not mean that you cannot set the borrowing authority as part of the budgetary process. See the example from the German federal budget that I posted above. A borrowing baseline, plus additional authorization for discretionary borrowing on an as-needed basis.

          This is very different from having two distinct legislative procedures (a budget act and a debt ceiling act) that Congress pretends are totally separate things and where it gets to disavow responsibility for the debt but in reality are interdependent.

          1. We don´t disagree. My point is reflected in the secondary discretionary provisions in the German budget. They are only small
            compared to the baseline planned deficit. GDP estimates are often 1% out; that makes 0.3% of GDP in tax receipts.

  6. Back when Nixon was doing the “impoundment” thing, there was a very clear court decision saying that the president wasn’t allowed to cut spending on programs whose budgets had been allocated by congress. (GWB made a mockery of that ruling, but it’s still there.) So that avenue is closed unless you can get the current court to overrule.

    1. As I pointed out above, that ruling was in the context of the money actually being available to spend. It’s anybody’s guess whether the Supreme court would uphold that precedent in a case where the debt ceiling had been reached, and the money wasn’t legally available to spend.

  7. Does anyone here understand Senate procedure well enough to clarify something for me?

    I think sponsors of bills very frequently wind up voting against cloture because of a rule that requires them to do so if they want it to be considered again in the future. The author of the bill has to be among those wanting debate to continue in order to, in effect, “continue debating” the measure next time it comes up.

    I seem to recall stories in the past where this paradoxical “but he voted against his own bill!” complaint was raised against Harry Reid. Is this instance somehow different?

    I’m no fan of McConnell, but I’d like to understand whether this particular vote was quite as cynical as it is being made to sound. Or is McConnell effectively being caught the way Al Capone was? Not for being a gangster, but for tax evasion. It was the charge that could draw a conviction.

    1. McConnell didn’t have to vote. Reid asked for unanimous consent to proceed to take up the bill McConnell had proposed to take up, and McConnell objected.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. I guess there are more distinct flavors of filibuster than I realized.

        1. If I might quote, “McConnell claimed he never agreed to hold a simple majority vote on the bill.

          “What we’re talking about here is a perpetual debt ceiling grant in effect to the president. Matters of this level of controversy always require 60 votes,” the GOP leader said.”

          That’s his stated justification.

          I would say that he intended to call the Democrats’ bluff, and demonstrate that even Reid didn’t want Congress’ power to borrow handed over to the President in perpetuity. He was betting that their concern for institutional prerogatives would trump partisan preferences. Then realized at the last moment that they weren’t bluffing.

          It was a stupid bet, the smart money is always on Congress giving more of it’s own power to the President, if doing so relieves them of responsibility, too. That’s how we got the regulatory state in the first place.

          1. Personally I would say that McConnell lies a lot. Others would classify it as being a “master parliamentarian” or “good negotiator”. Regardless of how you classify his utterences, nothing McConnell says can be taken either at face value or as a disinterested account of what took place.

            In this instance it is pretty clear from the record that McConnell master parliamentarian’d himself right into a corner, and then had to filibuster his own request. Utterly shameful and deeply unserious, but that’s the modern Republican-Libertarian Party for ya.


          2. actually brett, up until very recently the smart money has been on the democratic party maintaining a state of disarray and circular firing squads. reid managed to get them to stand together for once muh to mconnell’s chagrin. good for harry!

    1. I sit corrected. I thought “nickel” was the metal and “nickle” was the 5-cent piece, but that seems to be wrong.

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