By Richard Reeves
If the Republicans in Congress are unable to prevent the United States from paying its bills later in this month of shutdowns and deficit limits, I assume their next move will be an attempt to impeach President Obama.
This has not been a great century for American democracy, beginning with the Supreme Court’s decision to give the presidency in 2001 to a man who may not have won it. Since then, we have started two wars we did not have a chance to win, we have had one fiscal crisis after another, and now seem to be at the mercy of 30 or 40 wackos in the House of Representatives who do not really believe in democracy or majority rule.
Alexis de Tocqueville worried about an American tyranny of the majority, still always a danger. He did not, however, envision a tyranny of the minority, which we are now living through.
Someone in the White House, maybe the president himself, came up with the rather telling lines about government being held hostage by a minority of one party in one house in Congress in one branch of government.
That is, after all, what is happening, and is leading to more craziness. I would include in the nutty column the suggestion that the Federal Reserve should create a new coin, a platinum thing, and declare it worth a trillion dollars. That magic coin, which would not even work in a parking meter, under guard in Fort Knox, would be used to finance the government in tricky ways that make your head hurt. That ploy might actually be legal because just before the end of the 20th century, Congress passed a bill allowing the Federal Reverse System to create platinum coins for collectors, but neglected, typically, to set any limits on how much such coins would be worth.
I think by now that many Americans understand that the current shutdown is very stupid, but only an inconvenience for most of the people most of the time. The national parks will open again one sunny day, even as hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people have their lives disrupted—temporarily, one hopes. The real danger comes in the middle of the month when the federal government must stop paying its bills because it will have passed a deficit ceiling of $16 trillion or so.
So, legally, the president should then stop paying our soldiers and other federal employees, and the debts held by buyers of government bonds.
In a commentary on the pages of The New York Times.com, Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, put it this way:
"The Constitution requires the president to spend what Congress has instructed him to spend, to raise only those taxes Congress has authorized him to impose and to borrow no more than Congress authorizes. ... Lawyers tend to play down policy considerations as a basis for interpreting law. In this case, the consequences are so overwhelmingly on one side that they cannot be ignored by the president and should not be ignored by the courts. If the debt ceiling is not increased, the president should disregard it, and honor spending and tax legislation….
"If President Obama spends what the law orders him to spend and collects the taxes Congress has authorized him to collect, then he must borrow more than Congress has authorized him to borrow. If the debt ceiling is not raised, he will have to violate one of these constitutional imperatives. Which should he choose?"
If it comes to that, even House Speaker John Boehner, allegedly the leader of House Republicans, including the 30 or 40 members who apparently do want to destroy government, says he will do whatever he can to prevent the mid-October default. Boehner may be weak, but he is no fool. He does not want to be the boy on the burning deck as the ship of state is sinking.
And the president will certainly choose to pay the bills and keep the government running. And then the tea party crazies will try to dump Boehner and impeach Obama. That will be their last resort, unless they are planning to burn down the Capitol and the White House. Maybe that’s their Plan B.
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