POL 101 and the Debt Ceiling Debate

Yes, the President is a key actor in the debt ceiling debate. However, the actual decision is a congressional one.

I keep hearing and seeing people saying that President Obama is killing a particular debt ceiling deal or directly ascribing responsibility for the current situation to the President.

I find this annoying for one simple reason:  the ability to approve an increase in the debt ceiling is a congressional one.  This ought to be manifestly obvious to anyone who has even a basic knowledge of American government.  And yet we have folks (e.g., the WSJ editorial board or ) acting as if this is the President’s fault.

Now, like I said in a recent post, this is not an attempt to defend Obama, but it is an attempt to promote a basic understanding of the way our government works.

Yes, the President is the nominal head of the Democratic Party and therefore was considerable influence over said party.  But, influence is not control.

Yes, the President has biggest mic in the room.  As such, he can attempt to influence public opinion.  But influence does not always mean results.

One can argue that the President could do a better job of influencing the Democrats in the Congress or the public at large.  However (this is a big however):  the President can cast no vote on the debt ceiling (save one big negative at the end of the legislative process). Further, he can schedule nothing in the House, nor the Senate.  He cannot even directly introduce legislation.

As such, the success or failure of the debt ceiling issue will belong to Congress because they are the ones with the statutory power to raise said ceiling.

Our presidential system outs undo emphasis on the chief executive.  But we have to remember how the system works if we want to understand outcomes, as well as properly assign blame or credit.

FILED UNDER: Deficit and Debt, Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Lit3Bolt says:

    People who refuse to blame Republicans, or are attempting to be “moderate” on this economic terrorism issue, are showing their own bias pretty blatantly.

    I’m glad that Republicans show such favor to the political tactic of refusing to raise the debt ceiling, because one day in the future they will see it used against them. With a little party discipline, you can hold an entire country’s economy hostage.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    If this turns out o.k., I assume the President won’t take any credit because the authority to raise the debt ceiling is solely a “congressional one.”

    I don’t agree with this theory of the governement. In our Constitution, seperation of powers is coupled with a mingling of functions. Congress cannot pass a law without an executive check. Indeed, Obama has threatened veto, and thus is part of the drama he helped create.

  3. @PD Shaw: Well, claim-taking is about politics, not the actual mechanism of governance.

    And, you will note that I said “the President can cast no vote on the debt ceiling (save one big negative at the end of the legislative process)”

    However, to the point of the post: one cannot claim the president killed a legislative process until we get to the veto stage. We are hardly at that stage now.

  4. An Interested Party says:

    If this turns out o.k., I assume the President won’t take any credit because the authority to raise the debt ceiling is solely a “congressional one.”

    Conversely, if the debt ceiling does not get raised, all the credit for that can go to the Republicans in Congress, especially to those in the House of Representatives…

    Indeed, Obama has threatened veto, and thus is part of the drama he helped create.

    Yes, I suppose the President did help to create the drama by not ignoring the extortion demands of the GOP in the first place…

  5. Argon says:

    You know, at this point I think my time is better spent fishing than worrying about the debt ceiling. The one silver lining in the whole fiasco is that there’s no writers’ strike: So at least we’ve got Jon Stewart & Steven Colbert… and they’re really rocking now.

  6. jan says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I agree about the president making public claims of vetoing a bill he doesn’t like, especially one that doesn’t extend the debt ceiling long enough to see him through the next election. Formally, a veto was also indicated if a debt ceiling proposal didn’t contain revenue increases, code word for tax increase. However, he seems to have tempered his words on revenues, concentrating more on his reelection feasibility.

    While Steven is technically correct that it is Congress’s function to raise the debt ceiling, the president is the puppet master with his hands on the strings. That is a huge influence on what goes on in Congress.

  7. @jan:

    the president is the puppet master with his hands on the strings.

    In what sense?

    And if this was true, would he not be getting what he wants?

    This is just denial of reality.

  8. ponce says:

    In what sense?

    Obama gave a heckuva speech just now.

    Now all we need is Boner the Weepy to cry for the poor put upon billionaires and oil companies and it’s all over.

  9. An Interested Party says:

    I agree about the president making public claims of vetoing a bill he doesn’t like, especially one that doesn’t extend the debt ceiling long enough to see him through the next election.

    Please…Republicans would only want to pass a temporary lift in the debt ceiling so that they can use the issue in next year’s elections…for someone who claims to be a Democrat, you sure do a great job of carrying water for the GOP…

  10. James says:

    @jan:

    I’m similarly confused. Speaker Boehner’s plan pushes the debt limit increase for only six months. Specifically, he’s asking for a $1.2 trillion spending cut coupled with only a $1 trillion limit increase.

  11. Argon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Reality left the station long ago.

  12. jan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And if this was true, would he not be getting what he wants?

    Obama is trying to get what he wants, by jerking the strings of Congress.

    For instance, there was some kind of a deal this Sunday between the two Congressional leaders, and it was said to have been “torpedoed” by Obama. Obama has the power of the veto, as well as knowing the impossibility of Congress to override such a veto.

    Although, Obama was called a “plant” by Brit Hume, in being sidelined during the weekend Congressional negotiations, he nevertheless wants back on the podium, and in the game as far as getting what he wants. That’s why he keeps his big deal alive, even though both Reid and Boehner have moved beyond that deal, including not increasing taxes in any current proposals being worked out.

    Basically, if a deal doesn’t get through before the “deadline”, it will be because Obama refuses to sign one.

  13. ponce says:

    Basically, if a deal doesn’t get through before the “deadline”, it will be because Obama refuses to sign one.

    The Republicans will have to get their plan through the Senate before Obama has to decide whether he’ll sign it or not.

  14. Hey Norm says:

    “…For instance, there was some kind of a deal this Sunday between the two Congressional leaders…”
    What plan was that exactly? Got a link?

  15. Hey Norm says:

    @ Ponce…
    There seems to be some doubt about it even getting out of the House.

  16. James says:

    @jan:

    That’s why he keeps his big deal alive, even though both Reid and Boehner have moved beyond that deal, including not increasing taxes in any current proposals being worked out.

    Yet Pres. Obama explicitly endorsed Reid’s plan no more than an hour ago, stating:

    The Senate has introduced a plan to avoid default, which makes a down payment on deficit reduction and ensures that we don’t have to go through this again in six months.

    It’s almost as if you’re concluding that you disagree with the president, and then walking backwards to find out why…..

  17. David M says:

    Seriously, we’re supposed to believe Boehner has the authority to negotiate any sort of deal? Let alone one that Reid would sign off on and could pass the Senate?

    It does take some impressive mental gymnastics to watch everything that’s happened so far, and see how much trouble Boehner is having getting support for any deal but still claim it’s all going to be Obama’s fault because he didn’t sign a bill that was never passed.

  18. jan says:

    @An Interested Party:

    blockquote>Republicans would only want to pass a temporary lift in the debt ceiling so that they can use the issue in next year’s elections…

    Actually, I think both parties are playing their cards so as to positively effect their chances in 2012.

    Boehner probably sees this (as was stated above) as an attempt to keep this unpopular issue alive, while, the President wants it to go away so he doesn’t have to deal with such an unsavory issue in the midst of an election.

    Neither, though, is really doing this for the good of the country.

    A truth in Boehner’s argument, is that a short deal avoids a crisis while giving the Congress an extra 6 months to work our further details of a more long lasting proposal. Perhaps, with so much angst being experienced by politicians and the country alike, it would make such negotiations more serious and render something that would address genuine debt reduction, tax and entitlement reform that would help the country, in the long run.

    I was disappointed, though, in the president’s speech. It was the same old, same old ‘Blame Bush’ rendition, blame republicans, while Obama has a clean bill of health in these negotiations. I almost turned him off, and I almost was not going to listen to Boehner, as I’ve never been his greatest fan. But, his rebuttal was his best public address to date. He came across as believable, which surprised me.

  19. @jan:

    Obama is trying to get what he wants, by jerking the strings of Congress.

    That would make him a rather lousy puppet master, yes? Because, a puppet master controls the puppet. That’s the point of the metaphor. If he can’t get exactly what he wants, but rather can on;y try to get it, he isn’t the puppet master by definition.

  20. Hey Norm says:

    “…A truth in Boehner’s argument, is that a short deal avoids a crisis while giving the Congress an extra 6 months to work our further details of a more long lasting proposal. Perhaps, with so much angst being experienced by politicians and the country alike, it would make such negotiations more serious and render something that would address genuine debt reduction, tax and entitlement reform that would help the country, in the long run…”

    @SLT…are you guys employing a comedy writer to replace JWest?

  21. ponce says:

    There seems to be some doubt about it even getting out of the House.

    I’m assuming the Republicans’ wealthy Wall Street backers will put the pressure on the Republican leadership in the House to sign on to Harry Reid’s plan.

    There is no indication in the markets that they are wagering on a default.

  22. James says:

    @jan: You realize he only mentioned George W. Bush by name only once right? Specifically:

    Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed [a debt limit increase], and every President has signed it. President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it 7 times. And we have to do it by next Tuesday, August 2nd, or else we won’t be able to pay all of our bills.

    Moreover, he said:

    Because neither party is blameless for the decisions that led to this problem, both parties have a responsibility to solve it.

    Conversely, Speaker Boehner seemed to be quite happy placing blame, stating:

    the ‘crisis’ atmosphere [Obama] has created

  23. ratufa says:

    Perhaps, with so much angst being experienced by politicians and the country alike, it would make such negotiations more serious and render something that would address genuine debt reduction, tax and entitlement reform that would help the country, in the long run.

    If you think the budget is an “unsavory” issue to bring up during the election, then why do think politicians are going to want to come anywhere close to “genuine” debt reduction and entitlement reform during an election?

  24. WR says:

    @jan: I don’t know why you’re surprised. You believe — or claim to believe — every other lie issued by the Republicans, so why would this be something new for you?

  25. WR says:

    @Hey Norm: Hmmm…. we don’t really know what JWest’s first name was. Jan?

  26. MBunge says:

    @ponce: “There is no indication in the markets that they are wagering on a default.”

    Which you could take as a sign of just how screwed up things are. Either the fix has always been in to get some sort of debt ceiling increase no matter what this has all been just for show OR our economic elite are in total denial about the pitiful state of our political process. I’d kind of bet on the latter.

    Mike

  27. A voice from another precinct says:

    @MBunge: Would these be the economic elite who came up with the 130%+ loan to value mortgages during the housing boom? If so, I’ll vote for total denial also (and cluelessness, it it’s on the ballot and I can vote for more than one).

  28. ponce says:

    Either the fix has always been in to get some sort of debt ceiling increase no matter what this has all been just for show OR our economic elite are in total denial about the pitiful state of our political process.

    I think it’s more a case that people know Obama can simply bypass Congress and continue to pay our bills on time if he needs to.

  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Yes, the President is the nominal head of the Democratic Party and therefore was considerable influence over said party.

    What I find interesting in all this is that President Obama has more influence over the Republicans than he does over the Democrats. Whatever he is for the Reps are 100% against, even if just a few short months ago, they were for it.

    I am awed by Obama’s powers of persuasion.

  30. john personna says:

    A President can only be a check on a divided Congress. Of course, that’s what we have, with one Congressional faction applying their own check. The result, as we see is, deadlock.

    Now given the 74 times the debt limit has been raised, one would think that a compromise would enable number 75 … but we’ve got revolutionaries in the House. That’s the game changer. They might push deadlock through to default.

    I do think though, to really put Obama on the spot, they have to unite both houses of Congress – for the reasons Steven stated at the top. You have to pass a bill through Congress with a simple majority before the ball is truly in the President’s court. Until that time he is only giving advice (or heckling) over the net.

  31. john personna says:

    I think I buried my lede:

    “You have to pass a bill through Congress before the ball is truly in the President’s court. Until that time he is only giving advice (or heckling) over the net.”

  32. @jan:

    Basically, if a deal doesn’t get through before the “deadline”, it will be because Obama refuses to sign one.

    This would indicate that you do not understand the process (and that you are in the target audience for this post) because the President does not get to sign anything (i.e., have a formal role in the process) until after Congress (both houses) pass something.

  33. @john personna:

    but we’ve got revolutionaries in the House. That’s the game changer. They might push deadlock through to default.

    Exactly. I find the current talking point that the president is the one blocking a deal to be an attempt by the House GOP and their allies to misdirect attention away from the real source of the obstruction.

    “You have to pass a bill through Congress before the ball is truly in the President’s court. Until that time he is only giving advice (or heckling) over the net.”

    Exactly.