David Frum

12.03.12

Obama’s Debt Ceiling ‘Lincoln’ Option

Bruce Bartlett proposes the Abraham Lincoln option for the fiscal cliff's debt ceiling component. Strap on your tyrant shoes, we're going outside the law:

Said Lincoln, “To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?”

In the present case, of course, the one law would be the debt limit, which Professors Buchanan and Dorf say is less binding on the president than unilaterally cutting spending or raising taxes without congressional approval. Hence, if Republicans are truly mad and absolutely refuse to raise the debt limit, thereby risking default or the nonpayment of essential government bills, Professors Buchanan and Dorf believe the president would have the authority to sell bonds over and above the limit.

There are a host of practical problems any time the president is forced into uncharted constitutional territory, as Lincoln so often was. But when faced with an extortion demand from a political party that no longer feels bound by the historical norms of conduct, the president must be willing to do what has to be done.

I stated my opposition to eliminating the debt ceiling last week. After a weekend to think it over, my position has shifted. End the stupid thing. If Congress feels the need to appropriate spending, Congress should have the basic compunction to pay the accrued bills, and if Congress doesn't want to add to our debt, such is their prerogative.

There's a reason the debt ceiling is an attractive lever for fiscal conservatives. Like Grover's tax pledge, it appears a powerful check on fiscal abandon. But, like the pledge, it doesn't do a thing to contain spending. If the only product of the ceiling is fiscal uncertainty, it's not worth retention.

Now, as to Mr. Bartlett's support for the Lincoln option: this is an absolutely, positively, wildly irresponsible idea. We shouldn't be encouraging the President to wade into further "uncharted constitutional territory."

End the debt ceiling, but in a legal manner. Is that too much to ask?