For all the recent scuttlebutt about resolving the Republican debt-ceiling crisis with a trillion-dollar coin, there was an elusive detail: what does the White House think about this? Yesterday, for the first time, press secretary Jay Carney was pressed for an answer.
The full transcript of yesterday’s briefing is online, but halfway through the briefing, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked, “Do you guys have a position on this trillion-dollar coin business?” The question itself drew laughter from the press corps, and Carney responded:
“I would simply go back to what I said. The option here is for Congress to do its job and pay its bills – bills that have already been racked up. We saw what happened last summer, the summer of 2011, when Congress flirted with the idea of default, didn’t even go all the way to default, and yet the impact on our economy was severe, the impact on average Americans was severe.
“We had the lowest job creation in the month of August of 2011 of any month during the recovery, and the reason is because of what House Republicans did that summer. Now, we can’t do that again. So let’s not even pretend that that’s an okay scenario.”
Since Carney didn’t specifically address the coin angle, reporters pressed further. The press secretary added, “Look, there is no plan B. There is no backup plan. There is Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills of the United States…. There is no alternative to Congress raising the debt ceiling. It’s [Congress’] responsibility. Congress has to pay the bills of the United States. That is an obligation they assigned to themselves.”
Several more times Carney was pressed to explicitly rule out the possibility, and in each case, he did not. This, in turn, created even more chatter about the seemingly ridiculous coin gambit.
Carney’s comments seem to have been interpreted in two competing ways: (1) he didn’t take the coin idea off the table, so it remains a real possibility; and (2) the White House’s official position is, “There is no alternative to Congress raising the debt ceiling,” which effectively rules out the coin idea.
So, which of those two interpretations should the political world take seriously? I suspect it’s the latter, but I’m nevertheless glad Carney was ever-so-slightly evasive anyway.
Consider the larger context: congressional Republicans believe they have the stronger position. It’s up to Congress to raise the debt ceiling, so if President Obama expects lawmakers to do their duty, he’ll have no choice but to pay the GOP’s still-undefined ransom.
When various folks recommended a “14th Amendment” option, the White House quickly and explicitly knocked it down, telling reporters – and Congress – that the administration would not pursue such an alternative. That only reinforced the hostage dynamic, letting lawmakers know all of the power is still very much in their hands.
But the coin idea, no matter how exotic, at least leaves the door open a crack. Yesterday, Carney had no problem explicitly ruling out the 14th Amendment approach, but, with respect to the coin, he wasn’t prepared to go quite as far.
I don’t seriously expect White House officials to pursue this, but my point is that there’s utility in making Congress just a little nervous. If Republicans are led to believe that there’s an escape hatch for the hostage, it will affect their posture and the salience of their threats to hurt Americans unless their demands are met.
In fact, I’d guarantee that GOP leaders took note of Carney’s comments yesterday, and are thinking anew about Rep. Greg Walden’s (R-Ore.) proposal.