How far will the US budget/debt ceiling row go?
At first glance, the lead question seems such an obvious Question To Which The Answer Is No that you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘why’, ‘how’ or even ‘what?!’. In a sensible world, it would be – but then in a sensible world, the US federal government wouldn’t be the best part of a week into shutdown – and political betting is as much as anything an exercise is scenario planning.
US politicians are currently playing a very high-stakes game, and at least one side is likely to come off very badly. That side should be the Republicans in Congress, who’ve driven themselves up a strategic blind alley: the public blames them more than Obama or their Democrat opposite numbers for the shutdown. If they blink first then they’ve achieved nothing but pain and disruption; if they don’t, they could well be responsible for a far worse crisis when government spending runs up against the debt ceiling.
At the heart of the stalemate is the depth of the antipathy that some Republican congressmen hold for the Obamacare legislation. Their desire to repeal the legislation, firstly by refusing to fund it and secondly by tying that issue in with raising the Debt Ceiling – potentially denying the US government further borrowing – is such a part of their political identity it will not be given up easily, if at all. What next? If there’s a compromise across the board, or if the Republicans throw in their cards, so ends the crisis. If not, things really get interesting.
The media is reporting October 17 as the date by when the Debt Ceiling would have to be raised if a default on US debt is to be avoided. The timescale may not be quite so set in stone as that but the critical point is very likely to be during this month. If no agreement can be reached in time, then as discussed in the New York Times here, Obama may have no legal course open to him. As head of the Executive, he is constitutionally bound to ensure that Congress’ tax and spending plans are executed, except that it will be impossible to do so while simultaneously keeping within their debt limits. If the game of chicken does go down to (and beyond) the wire, the question is whether he authorises illegal borrowing or refuses to pay those who are entitled to an income from the Federal government – a group which includes international investors.
Which is where the question of impeachment comes in. Unlike the UK, where no impeachment has occurred for over two centuries, the procedure is relatively common in the US. Federal impeachment proceedings have been brought against six officials in the last thirty years: four were carried, one dropped after the judge in question resigned and the case against the other – President Clinton – dismissed. Given the intensity of the debate now, never mind what it would be if the row goes up to and beyond the point where Obama would have to act outside Congress’ parameters, it seems almost certain that impeachment proceedings would be brought; all the more so if he chose to increase borrowing unilaterally (as the NY Times article concludes he should).
Since the founding of the USA, impeachment proceedings have been brought against three presidents. Two – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – went to trial and the other, Nixon, jumped before he would have been pushed. Like Clinton, Obama also faces an assertive and ideological Republican-led House.
I doubt the sense of outrage that the Republican Representatives would feel if Obama was to borrow more anyway (which would nullify the whole concept of a Debt Ceiling and implement his healthcare legislation into the bargain), could result in anything other than their going down the impeachment route. The Senate would of course throw out the charges and the egg would end on the faces of the Republicans but many a bad decision has been made in a closed environment with the blood up.
Will it happen? Probably not, but the longer the stand-off goes on, the more likely it becomes. After all, most crises are not consciously brought about but result from miscalculation.