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Biden’s Admission on the 14th Amendment Actually a BFD

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The bombshell dropped alongside the debt limit deal yesterday, aside from Gabrielle Giffords’ return to Congress, was Joe Biden telling a group of House Democrats that the President was prepared to “invoke the 14th Amendment” in the event of the debt limit failing to pass. I’m not sure entirely what he means by that, but there are enormous implications.

The President said all along that the only way to raise the debt limit was to raise the debt limit through legislative action. He was unmoved by the claims that it could be raised through other means. Now we hear through Biden that, as a fail-safe, there was a way for Obama to use his power as chief executive to avoid a default.

Given that information, 95 House Democrats went along with the sugar-coated Satan sandwich anyway. A shift of 53 of them would have blown the deal, at least on the first pass. Seemingly no consideration was made for this, it was simply seen as a hypothetical. John Garamendi and Hank Johnson, two of the co-sponsors of a resolution supporting the President’s right to invoke the 14th Amendment and ignore the debt limit, voted for the deal anyway.

This is nonetheless valuable information. It shows that the President feels he has the option to avoid a financial catastrophe recklessly pushed by the opposing party. The next President, when faced with this, is likely to jump at that possibility. I know that Mitch McConnell said on the floor of the Senate that this will happen again on the next debt limit vote. But it seems to me that a hand has been tipped now. If more reporting is done on this, the debt limit need not be a hostage-taking event again. And at the very least, a movement should begin inside Congress to abolish it, especially because a US President has intimated that they always have a backstop irrespective of the failure to pass.

As for those who recoil at more aggrandizement of executive power, consider that a) there really shouldn’t be a debt limit, so this is more like the extinguishing of a ridiculous legislative power, and b) the first-order priority is to fix the broken legislative system so you don’t have to keep doing executive end-runs around it.

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David Dayen

David Dayen