Dear Tea Party, Meet the Constitution

Some Tea Party Republicans can't seem to grasp the basics of how the country is run.

Matt Bevin’s latest shot against Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate battle is over the debt, and the debt limit in particular. In a new ad, the Tea Party candidate attacks McConnell for raising the debt ceiling and giving President Obama a “blank check” to, presumably, spend whatever he wants. Here’s the ad:

Again, to raise the debt limit isn’t to cut a “blank check,” it’s to allow the executive branch to pay for congressional spending. Or, put another way, Congress “cuts the check” when it appropriates cash and passes a bill, not when it clears Treasury to issue new bonds.

In fairness to Bevin, he’s not alone in this misconception (or, if you’re feeling less charitable, willful deception). Last week, former senator Jim DeMint described Democrats as “completely willing to give the president a blank check to borrow whatever he wanted.” And during the debt ceiling fight in 2011, Republican after Republican complained that Obama wanted a blank check to spend.

The problem with this is that Obama can’t spend. He can propose new spending, he can try to cajole Congress into passing new spending—but he can’t take funds to spend on new or existing programs. That’s how our system works. Congress has the “power of the purse,” and the most the president can (formally) do is sign or veto. Raising the debt limit doesn’t change that.

Now, my guess is that Bevin knows this, and is making a cynical attack on McConnell. Fine, that’s politics. Still, it’s annoying. If you’re going to claim the mantle of the Constitution, then the least you can do is talk as if you’ve read it. And if there’s anything our founding document is clear on, it’s the role of Congress vis a vis the president.