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House Dems: Use the 14th Amendment and Get This Over With

House Democrats have been largely silenced in the debt limit debate. They’re the minority in a majoritarian body, so that’s somewhat natural. But seeing that the numbers are so close for any plan in the House that Democrats could hold the margin of victory, it’s a little curious.

Now, House Democrats are responding to that lockout by basically saying that the President should invoke the 14th Amendment and put this nonsense to rest.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the Democratic leadership, said he told fellow Democrats that Obama should both veto any House GOP plan for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling and invoke the 14th amendment, which says that the validity of the nation’s public debt “shall not be questioned.”

The White House has rejected resorting to this tactic to keep the nation from defaulting, questioning its legality, but Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who chairs the Democratic caucus, said “we’re getting down to decision time” and “we have to have a failsafe mechanism and we believe that failsafe mechanism is the 14th Amendment and the president of the United States.”

Larson said Clyburn’s proposal on the 14th Amendment was met with applause by other Democrats at their meeting.

Here’s video of Clyburn and Larson. This would have been a good thing to threaten a few weeks ago, but now that Standard and Poor’s has decided to mutate into the IMF and punish the US for not making the lives of its citizens materially worse, I’m sure the White House doesn’t see it as an option anymore, even in a time of crisis.

The point is that everyone has played a role into backing the country into a corner with no good alternatives. Yoking a massive deficit reduction plan to the debt limit was one of the single dumbest policy moves of the last generation, perhaps as dumb as going into Iraq. Even Tim Geithner could figure out months ago that tying a risky negotiation to a must-pass anchor for the global economy was completely absurd.

For months, the administration’s position seemed to be that the debt limit should be raised with no conditions. In Washington-speak, that’s known as a “clean” increase.

In February, Geithner spoke at a House Budget Committee hearing and said, “You know, this is not a popular thing for people to do, and if you let people negotiate over the terms, the risk is you leave people with expectations you can’t meet. And it is just that that suggestion leads us to suggest you should do it clean.”

But two months later, Obama told a reporter that lifting the debt ceiling was “not going to happen without some spending cuts.” Later in the month, White House Chief of Staff William Daley said something similar: “Nobody thinks there will be a clean debt ceiling extension vote. There probably shouldn’t be, without some changes in spending. The budget deficit is a real thing that has to be addressed.”

Geithner apparently stood up for Peter Welch when he sensibly called for a clean increase. But over time, that hope faded away. And we were left with people who didn’t want to deal with one another, who actually couldn’t deal with one another and keep their institutional positions in their political parties, forced to deal with one another or risk a global financial catastrophe.

This should have been handled when the Democrats had leverage, during the Bush tax cut negotiations. The 2011 budget should have been handled then as well. This was a mistake that will number in the trillions of dollars, and cost millions of people their jobs. Harry Reid thought he was playing a normal game of politics when he talked about Republicans getting “buy-in” on the debt. This was just a stupid way to look at it. He didn’t realize he was dealing with revolutionaries, and that he didn’t have any backup in the White House.

Instead, we are where we are, and everyone’s looking for a way out, with malign political actors stymieing them at every turn. It’s about as shameful a display as you can get.

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David Dayen

David Dayen