• U.S. Representative John Larson On The National Debt

    June 19, 2023
    John Larson, Public Domain.

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    Connecticut U.S. Representative for life John Larson – D,1st District -- tells us in an op-ed piece printed in the Hartford Courant, “The debt ceiling as it stands is a failed policy,” that any notion of a debt ceiling is unconstitutional: “Prior to a [bipartisan] agreement being reached [on the debt ceiling], I led other members of Congress in urging President [Joe] Biden to recognize that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional.”

    As proof that debt ceilings are unconstitutional, Larson points to the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment, which 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.”

    The language of the amendment ratified in 1868, most especially its reference to those in former slave owning states who might attempt to reject debt payments incurred for “pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion” should have suggested to a congressman less interested in promoting debt-ceiling-free spending that the post-Civil-War amendment was rather narrowly conceived.

    Its authors did not wish a defeated confederacy, reunited in the post-Civil-War period to a once rejected union of states, to avoid or question post-Civil War debt payments. The scope and purpose of the 14th amendment, obvious in its phrasing, does not make congressional debt ceilings unconstitutional.

    Larson notes that “Congress has lifted the debt limit almost 80 times since 1960, including three times where Republicans overwhelmingly supported raising it under President Trump.” Apparently, no reporter in Connecticut has thought to ask Larson whether such boosts in the debt limit violate congressional intent. And Larson conspicuously fails to note in his op-ed 1) that much of the time compromises on the debt limit between congressional Democrats and Republicans were attained when both parties agreed to spending cuts, and 2) that Biden kicked off current debt limit negotiations by laying down an unconditional mandate -- there would be no spending cuts.

    As a general rule, spendthrift Democrats – i.e. progressive Democrats, Larsonites -- are averse to spending cuts. And that is why bottom line spending, the borrowing of money from banks, and inflation, a destructive hidden tax on private assets, all have increased by leaps and bounds over the years. The current national debt is $31.4 trillion; in fiscal year 2021, Connecticut’s state debt was about 41.97 billion, the highest tax payer debt in the country.

    “I voted against the [bipartisan debt ceiling] legislation,” Larson tells us, “to protest the normalization of holding the American economy hostage in order to extract policy goals. It is also why I support ending this recurring threat once and for all.” Actually, it was the Biden-Larson wing of the Democrat Party that was holding hostage mainstream Democrats and Republicans who favored a bipartisan agreement in which both parties would agree to necessary spending cuts as a tradeoff for raising the debt ceiling.

    It is important to bear in mind that Larson does not wish to end ever-increasing debt, or its ugly sisters – inflation and disordered spending. Larson simply wishes to end a “recurring threat” in which spending is held hostage by cost cutting congress members who believe it should be the principal business of state and national legislators to appropriate and spend tax dollars. At least, that is what the Constitution affirms by its threefold division of powers.

    Under Larson’s reform measure, how would the constitutional obligation of legislators – to appropriate and spend tax dollars – be changed so as to eliminate the recurring threat of a national government shutdown when the congress exceeds spending limits -- 80 times, Larson informs us, since 1960?

    The number of times the debt limit has been raised since 1960 surely is an indication that the so called debt limit is a paper thin obstacle to ever increasing spending.

    “I am working,” Larson tells us, “with Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle (PA-02) on legislation that would empower the secretary of the treasury to initiate increasing the debt ceiling. Should Congress find such an increase irresponsible, it would have 30 days to pass a resolution blocking it. If Republicans think that default is the most responsible course of action, they should be required to put their name behind a vote to do so and make the case to the American public.”

    The secretary of the treasury, part of the executive branch of government, would under Larson’s scheme be authorized by congress to initiate measures to automatically increase the debt ceiling. And the legislature, formerly in charge of getting and spending, would be given a veto on decisions made by agents of the executive branch.

    The change Larson proposes, constitutionalists persuasively argue, violates the very architecture of the constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. But no matter, the congress, formerly in charge of the nation’s purse strings, will be given the opportunity to veto legislative decisions made by an agent of the chief executive, who will be unconstitutionally obligated to enforce purse string decisions formerly made by legislators such as Larson.

    The constitutional obligations of the national legislature will, in other words, pass from legislative to executive hands – an unconstitutional shift of power that would automatically remove the usual brake on spending. And, of course, the secretary of the treasury is an appointive not an elective position.

    Would it not be much simpler, far more constitutional, and less of a strain on Larson’s nerves, for congress to eliminate debt ceiling limits altogether?

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    Don Pesci

    Don Pesci is a political columnist of long standing, about 40 years, who has written for various state newspapers, among them The Journal Inquirer, the Waterbury Republican American, the New London Day, the Litchfield County Times, the Torrington Register Citizen and other Register Citizen papers. He maintains a blog, among the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, which serves as a repository and archive, for his columns; there are approximately 3,000 entrees in Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State, virtually all of them political columns stretching back to 2004. He also appears once a week Wednesdays on 1080 WTIC Newstalk radio with Will Marotti.

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