Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle today, explaining why he believes it's responsible to hold the debt ceiling hostage until President Obama "puts forward a plan" that makes Republicans happy. The piece is filled with errors of fact and judgment, but there was one truly bizarre claim that stood out for me.
"The coming deadlines will be the next flashpoints in our ongoing fight to bring fiscal sanity to Washington," the Texas Republican wrote. "It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well being of our country."
Just at a surface level, this is ridiculous -- to prevent possible trouble in the future, Cornyn intends to cause deliberate trouble now? But even putting that aside, I'm not sure if the senator understands the nature of the controversy. Failing to raise the debt limit -- that is, choosing not to pay the bills for money that's already been spent -- doesn't just "partially shut down the government," it pushes the nation into default and trashes the full faith and credit of the United States.
Does Cornyn, a member of the Finance and Budget committees, not understand this? Just as importantly, is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) equally confused?
"By demanding the power to raise the debt limit whenever he wants by as much as he wants, [President Obama] showed what he's really after is assuming unprecedented power to spend taxpayer dollars without any limit," McConnell argued on the Senate floor.
At the risk of being impolite, McConnell's comments are plainly dumb. As a policy matter, it's just gibberish, and the fact that the Senate Minority Leader doesn't seem to know what the debt ceiling even is, after already having threatened default in 2011 and planning an identical scheme in 2013, raises serious questions about how policymakers can expect to resolve a problem they don't seem to understand at a basic level.
For the record, Congress, by constitutional mandate, has the power of the purse. Unless you're Ronald Reagan illegally selling weapons to Iran to finance a secret and illegal war in Nicaragua, the executive branch can't spend money that hasn't already been authorized by the legislative branch.
If the president had the authority to raise the debt ceiling on his or her own, it would not give the White House the authority to "spend taxpayer dollars without any limit," since any administration would still be dependent on Congress for expenditures. The debt limit has nothing to do with this -- spending authority would be unchanged no matter which branch had the power over raising the limit, and whether the ceiling existed or not.
It's really not that complicated. Congress approves federal spending, the executive branch follows through accordingly. When the legislative branch spends more than it takes in, the executive branch has to borrow the difference.
In the 1930s, Congress came up with the debt ceiling, mandating the White House to get permission to borrow the money that Congress has already spent. If McConnell, Cornyn, and their hostage-taking friends refuse to raise the ceiling, the administration can't pay the nation's bills. It's that simple.
Either GOP lawmakers like McConnell and Cornyn haven't yet grasped these basic details, or they're cynically hoping the public is easily misled by bogus rhetoric. Either way, there's little hope of a sensible public debate if Senate Republican leaders repeat nonsense about a looming national crisis.