Watchdog demands to know why Obama renounced debt-limit power

One of Washington's most prominent watchdog groups is seeking the legal reasons behind President Obama's long-standing refusal to hike the debt ceiling unilaterally.

As the recent fiscal battle unfolded, the White House said repeatedly that Obama does not have the authority to extend the Treasury's borrowing powers without congressional action.

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But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is challenging that claim, noting that the Obama administration has, in the words of CREW chief counsel Anne Weismann, adopted "an expansive view of executive power" in everything from the surveillance of U.S. citizens at home and the killing of Americans overseas.

Given that track record, CREW is wondering why Obama feels he can’t hike the debt ceiling on his own to prevent an economic collapse.

"While the president by no means created this crisis, there is a legitimate question as to whether he could have prevented it by exercising his unilateral authority to raise the debt limit," Weismann wrote Friday in a blog.

CREW on Friday filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Treasury Department, the Justice Department and the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel "seeking any legal opinions and/or memos concluding President Obama must sit back and wait for Congress to raise the debt ceiling even if his inaction plunges our country — and potentially the world economy — into economic chaos," Weismann wrote.

The issue is sure to resurface soon, as the debt package Congress enacted this week extends the Treasury's borrowing authority only through Feb. 7.

The short window sets the stage for another potential showdown between the president, who has insisted on a "clean" debt-limit hike, and conservative Republicans, who fought tooth and nail to stop ObamaCare as a condition of raising the ceiling.

In the midst of that battle, a number of Democrats and legal scholars argued that Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt limit unilaterally.

Section 4 of that amendment states that, "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."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is among the most vocal advocates of tapping the amendment to sidestep Congress.

"I think the 14th Amendment covers it," she said last month.

But Obama has repeatedly rejected that strategy, questioning its effectiveness if the legality of that move becomes the subject of broad dispute.

“If you start having a situation in which there’s legal controversy about the U.S. Treasury’s authority to issue debt, the damage will have been done even if that were constitutional, because people wouldn’t be sure,” Obama said during an Oct. 8 press briefing at the White House.

“It’d be tied up in litigation for a long time," he added. "That’s going to make people nervous."

CREW argues that such statements are hardly off the cuff, and must be based on an extensive evaluation by White House officials. It's that analysis the group is after.

"It is hard to imagine he would publicly insist he lacks authority to act in the face of such a crisis without someone in the administration taking a hard look at the question," Weismann wrote.

The group doesn't anticipate the administration will deliver the information readily, but it says it's ready to take the case to court, if need be.

"CREW is ready for that," Weismann wrote. "The public needs all the facts as the political posturing begins again on whether and how to increase the debt ceiling in advance of the new February 7, 2014 deadline."