If America is faced with a national default because of Republican
obstruction against raising the debt ceiling, in my opinion
President Obama has authority under Article 4 of the 14th Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution to act unilaterally if necessary to avoid a
debt ceiling-induced default. If default is the only other option, the
president should exercise this authority.
Unilateral presidential action to avoid a debt-ceiling default is the second worst option, and should be avoided if at all possible. Unilateral action sends an awful message to financial markets. While I believe such action would be reluctantly approved by a narrow Supreme Court majority after an inevitable challenge, judicial approval is not certain. Bipartisan and comprehensive budget, spending and revenue negotiations on all outstanding issues is a far more desirable outcome.
Former President Bill Clinton has championed the option of presidential authority if needed. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also championed this authority. And now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray (Wash.) have supported this authority in a recent letter. I applaud them all.
President Obama has expressed doubt about unilateral presidential action. To the degree he prefers to avoid this option, he is right. To the degree he may be forced to choose between unilateral action and default, he should state as soon as possible, as firmly as possible, that unilateral action may be the second worst choice but default would be, by far, the worst choice.
The proper solution is a bipartisan budget deal that is significant and moves far beyond the debt-ceiling issue. The president won the 2012 election. Senate Democrats were huge winners in the 2012 election. House Democrats gained seats and won more national popular votes than House Republicans in the last election. Democrats have won three out of the last four national elections. So any bipartisan agreement should be tilted toward the Democratic position.
At the same time, all House Republicans also won their seats in the 2012 election, which gives them some moral and political right to some concessions from Democrats, in proportion to the will of voters, expressed in elections, to achieve an agreement.
The president and Democrats should avoid the danger of hubris and overreaching. The Republicans must end the use or threats of legislative blackmail, extortion, obstruction, hostage-taking and willingness to force a default that could cause a crash because of an extremism and distemper that threatens to make the GOP a minority party for a generation.
Bipartisanship is preferable to constitutional confrontation. But if the only alternatives are to submit to legislative blackmail by Republicans or accept a disastrous national default, the authority of the president is constitutionally locked and loaded. The president would be supported by a large majority of voters if he chooses to use it, and if necessary, he should.