Discover more from Letters from an American
May 17, 2023
The debt ceiling crisis is already affecting our national security. Because President Biden has pulled out of his trip to Australia so he can come home to address the crisis, a planned meeting of the Quad will not go forward. The Quad, whose official name is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is a security group consisting of Australia, India, Japan and the United States that organized in 2007 as a response to China’s rising power.
Biden’s visit to Australia and to Papua New Guinea was designed to cement the interest of the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region. Daniel Hurst of The Guardian was quite clear what it meant to have Biden forced to cancel because of the Republicans’ debt ceiling demands. His article on the issue was titled: “The cancelled Quad summit is a win for China and a self-inflicted blow to the US’s Pacific standing.” “Chinese state media outlets won’t need to muster much creative energy to weave together some of Beijing’s preferred narratives,” Hurst wrote, “that the US is racked by increasingly severe domestic upheaval and is an unreliable partner, quick to leave allies high and dry.”
In the Sydney Morning Herald, Matthew Knott called Biden’s forced withdrawal “a disappointment, a mess and a gift to Beijing.” “The US wants to remain the leader of the free world but domestic divisions mean it now regularly struggles to keep its government from shutting down and defaulting on its debts,” he wrote. “The Quad summit in Sydney should have provided a powerful symbol of four proud democracies working together to get things done. Instead, it will serve to highlight the systemic problems plaguing the world’s longest-standing democracy and its aspirations for ongoing global leadership.”
And, astonishingly, stepping on this global rake is an unforced error. The debt ceiling is not about future spending, it is about paying bills Congress has already incurred. If it comes to that, failing to raise the debt ceiling—the amount of money the Treasury can borrow to meet its obligations—so that Republicans, led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), can get concessions they cannot win through normal legislative procedures, will be an unforced error of truly epic proportions, a larger version of undercutting years of work building U.S. standing in the Indo-Pacific region.
Senate Democrats have begun to push for honoring the nation’s debts without trying to bring Republicans along. They are circulating a letter urging President Biden to invoke the fourth section of the Fourteenth Amendment to override the debt ceiling. That section reads: “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.”
Republican congressmen wrote that section to prevent Democratic opponents, who hated the newly powerful government that had won the Civil War, from changing the terms of repayment of the debt. Democrats called for turning gold interest payments into payments in paper money. That change would have significantly degraded the value of the debt. It would also have destroyed confidence in the government, a result those who had just lost the Civil War quite liked.
Congress intended the Fourteenth Amendment to assert the power of the federal government over the states once and for all, making sure that no one could discriminate against individuals within the states or make war on the United States from within. It was an attempt to make it impossible for those trying to destroy the nation to carry out their plans.
Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) told Burgess Everett and Sarah Ferris of Politico, “It’s not about being comfortable with Biden or anyone else. It’s about the House. Kevin’s in shackles. He’s in leg, arms and hand cuffs. And frankly I don’t think he’s got much capacity to negotiate. And very little capacity to advance a deal.” Welch, who served eight terms in the House before moving to the Senate in 2023, added, “I’m quite pessimistic about McCarthy. He’s very constrained…. I think we’re heading toward a decision on the 14th Amendment.”
Interestingly, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) has indicated he’s on board with the idea of Biden invoking the Fourteenth Amendment. “I think if I were president, I would be tempted” to use the Fourteenth Amendment, Hawley said. “Because I would just be like, ‘Listen, I’m not gonna let us default. So end of story. Y’all will do whatever you want to do.’ But I’m not necessarily giving him that advice. It’s against my interest.” Hawley’s defense of the idea suggests that Republicans are eager to find a solution to the crisis that does not involve them, so that they can then condemn the Democrats for whatever they do.