The Constitution states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law....shall not be questioned." Bruce Bartlett suggests that this trumps the debt ceiling, which means the president can simply ignore Congress if he wishes and keep spending money even after the debt ceiling has been reached. To back this up, he quotes George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz:

A requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn't come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget. The government is required to dedicate its tax revenue first to paying off any debt that's due, but once that's done the Constitution is silent. If the debt ceiling has been reached, and there's not enough money left to issue Social Security checks or buy more aircraft carriers after current debts have been paid, then Social Security checks get reduced and aircraft carriers get put on hold. The constitutional argument for ignoring the debt ceiling would only come into play if for some reason things got to the point where it literally interfered with paying off current bondholders. We're not even within light years of that happening.  

I don't really like this conclusion, and I'd like to see the statutory debt ceiling go away entirely. It's an archaic budgetary vestige that makes no sense at all anymore. Still, it exists whether I like it or not, and I don't really see how it offends the Constitution as long as creditors keep getting paid.

Mark Halperin is one of my least-favorite political analysts, a reliably unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. Today, on Morning Joe, he gave his considered opinion of Barack Obama's press conference performance on Wednesday: "I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday."

Halperin didn't quite realize he was on the air when he said this, and when he did he immediately apologized and was later suspended by MSNBC. However, this is of zero interest to me. If Halperin thinks Obama is a dick, it's fine with me if he says it publicly. In fact, I'd rather he say it publicly. A mild reproach from MSNBC management for offending the delicate sensibilities of Morning Joe viewers would have been sufficient apology.

Needless to say, what's actually interesting here is that Halperin, in fact, thinks Obama is a dick for getting slightly combative yesterday. And this is interesting precisely because Halperin is an unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. It presumably means that a fair-sized chunk of the DC press corps also thinks Obama was a bit of a dick yesterday.

If this is the case, all I can say is that the standards for dickitude have become alarmingly low in Washington, DC, these days. I mean, Republicans have spent several consecutive months holding the country hostage to their tea-party base, pretending to negotiate a budget deal when they obviously had no intention of ever agreeing to any kind of compromise, all but chortling publicly at their own cleverness, and dressing down Obama in front of the TV cameras at every opportunity. But after putting up with this for months, it's Obama who's a dick for finally pushing back a bit against these guys? Seriously?

As I was writing this, I knew I'd shortly hear from one of my regular readers who's a close student of Halperin. His comment just popped into my inbox:

In many ways, Obama really is in a box with the Republicans and the media right now. Part of it, I'm sure, is his press operation's lack of messaging. But by far the most significant part of it is the right's mastery of the media. It's not just John Boehner vs. Obama, by which the playing field would be more fair, but it's virtually every conservative senator, congressman, pundit or voter who cares to spout something outrageous or inciteful vs. Obama. Not vs. the Democrats. Obama.

....If Obama cannot get past this, if provocation of the right is forbidden, then Obama has no option other than to deal — and according to Halperin, that means cave and move on. If this really is the view, then Obama's re-election is doomed as are those of liberal Democrats.

Yes indeedy. And Republicans are keenly aware of this. Whatever else you can say about Obama's performance or lack thereof over the past few months, it would be nice if his Democratic colleagues in Congress figured this out and started to fight back too.

The chart below represents Republican nirvana as of March 2011. According to their own JEC report, the best research suggests that successful "fiscal consolidation" efforts (i.e., deficit reductions) have historically been heavily weighted toward spending cuts. The sweet spot is 85% spending cuts, 15% tax increases:

The research touted here by Republicans is almost certainly wrong because it uses cherry-picked data from countries that weren't trying to fight off high unemployment and a stagnant economy. But as Mike Konczal points out, that doesn't matter. Right or wrong, this is what Republicans were touting as recently as three months ago.

So what happens when the president proposes a plan that's almost exactly 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases? They summarily reject it, and continue to insist that if they don't get their way they'll happily burn down the country by refusing to increase the debt ceiling. This should surprise no one, of course. This is how it usually goes when you negotiate with terrorists.

While I was in New York I met up with one of my longtime readers (and a fellow cat lover — see Coco at the very bottom of 2009's Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza) and we were joined by Stuart Zechman, who you may recognize as a regular guest on Jay Ackroyd's Virtually Speaking. We got to talking about Barack Obama and ended up in some very airy, meta, navel-gazing territory that I thought I might toss out for comment. This isn't usually my thing, and it might not be yours either. If it isn't, don't stress out about it. Just skip it and scroll down to the next post.

Anyway. Obama. At some point in our conversation one thing led to another and I offered up the conventional view that Obama is a center leftist. Stuart disagreed: Obama, he thinks, is a pure centrist, full stop. Now, I'm convinced that by every normal measure of these things, I'm right. Obama is, plainly, to the left of —

Well, what? This is where things broke down a bit. How do you measure this?

There's Obama's Senate voting record, of course, which by multiple measures put him in the leftmost quarter of the Senate. But that's the Senate. It doesn't say anything about his performance as president.

Or there's Obama compared to some mythical median voter. But that's almost undefinable. Obama pushed to repeal DADT, but by the time he did, repeal was supported by more than half the country. So you could say that repeal was actually a centrist position. By that definition, however, pretty much everything supported by a majority of the country is "centrist." Tax cuts are centrist. The Iraq War was centrist. FDR was centrist. This gets you nowhere.

Or there's conventional wisdom. Keynesian stimulus is leftist, national healthcare is leftist, and financial reform is leftist. So if you do moderate versions of those three things than you're a moderate leftist. President McCain wouldn't have done any of them, after all.

I'll stop now. Like I said, this is the kind of airy metapolitical discussion that I usually don't have a lot of patience for, and I think that by almost any measure Obama is obviously left of center. Still, it brings up a good question: it's relatively easy to look at a legislator and get a fairly rigorous, quantitative read on how far left or right they are. But how about presidents? Aside from gut instinct and conventional wisdom, what's the best measure of their political leanings? Anyone want to take a stab at this?

So the Dodgers declared bankruptcy while I was gone, and I hear that President Obama grew a pair at his press conference this morning. Anything else happen that I should know about? Has the country followed the Dodgers into bankruptcy yet?

Big, big thanks to Nick Baumann and Andy Kroll for filling in for me while I was gone. I hope you liked their stuff. Regular blogging will resume tomorrow. In the meantime, in keeping with the Southern California sunset theme from last week, here's a picture of sunset over the Hudson, taken from the High Line Park last Saturday. Enjoy.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the man who lit the fuse of 2011's nationwide union protests, made the not-so-shocking admission that his administration "had not built enough of the case" to slash collective bargaining rights for public workers. Talk about an understatement.

Walker's anti-union bill, which goes into effect today, was met with massive opposition, including more than 100,000 pro-union protesters who flooded the streets of Madison, the state capital. But the statement that really jumped out from Walker's interview is his own perception of the bargaining fight:

"They defined it as a rights issue. It's not a rights issue. It's an expensive entitlement."

Hmm. I'm pretty sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the UN after World War II (and drafted and adopted by the US), says that collective bargaining is in fact a human right. Oh, yes, there it is, in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration:

4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Then there's the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) here in the US, which "explicitly grants employees the right to collectively bargain and join trade unions," according to the scholars at Cornell University Law School. Or as the National Labor Relations Board's website puts it, the NLRA "protects employees' rights to act together, with or without a union, to improve working terms and conditions, including wages and benefits."

Memo to Scott Walker: Before launching an assault on a right like collective bargaining for workers, you'd be wise to fully understanding what exactly it is you are trying to eliminate. Wisconsin citizens deserve at least that much.

So begins the 2012 presidential campaign's outside spending money war.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, has launched a new ad pushing back against a multi-million-dollar attack campaign targeting President Obama's economic record by Karl Rove's American Crossroads. Priorities' $750,000 ad buy was significantly less than Crossroads', but the spots will air in states—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Virginia—that are all crucial to Obama's re-election.

Titled "Portraits," the add calls Crossroads' most recent offering—blaming President Obama for the lagging economic recovery—"politics at its worst." Set against a montage of purportedly ordinary Americans, the ad's narrator hews closely to Democratic talking points, criticizing Republicans for opposing "economic reform," wanting to "end Medicare," and cutting education funding, all the while supporting subsidies for big oil companies and tax breaks for the wealthy.

Here's the ad:

Like American Crossroads, Priorities USA Action is a 527 organization, or super PAC, which means it has to report its donors to the Federal Election Commission. The public will eventually know who funded this ad and others from the Democrat-led group.

The takeaway here is this: Democrats got shellacked in the 2010 midterms, in part because they didn't have the outside spending firepower to counter the barrage of ads from Crossroads and other like-minded groups. Not anymore. November 2012 is still almost a year and a half out, but already we're getting an early glimpse at the outside money wars sure to dominate the airwaves the closer we get to election day.

Ron Carey, a former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), has a message for the American public: Bachmann is not presidential material.

In an op-ed in Tuesday's Des Moines Register, Carey writes that Bachmann lacks the experience, savvy, and coordination to run the country. When he joined Bachmann's team in 2010, he writes, her congressional office was a disaster, and his tenure working for the Minnesota Republican and tea party darling convinced him that she's nowhere near the type of leader who can run the United States—not like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, whom Carey worked with while serving as chair of the Minnesota GOP:

Having seen [Bachmann and Pawlenty] up close and over a long period of time, it is clear to me that while Tim Pawlenty possesses the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president, Michele Bachmann decidedly does not.

The Bachmann campaign and congressional offices I inherited were wildly out of control. Stacks upon stacks of unopened contributions filled the campaign office while thousands of communications from citizens waited for an answer. If she is unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office, how could she possibly manage the magnitude of the presidency?

Carey concludes his op-ed with this offering:

I know Tim Pawlenty very well. He is a family man filled with faith and conservative convictions proven in action. He will make a great president. I know Michele Bachmann very well. She is a faithful conservative with great oratory skills, but without any leadership experience or real results from her years in office. She is not prepared to assume the White House in 2013.

This isn't the first time Carey has publicly questioned Bachmann's presidential credentials, saying in February that "she's not going to be an electable candidate for us."

That message sounds an awful lot like what long-time GOP campaign guru Ed Rollins was saying earlier this year. As I reported, Rollins said Bachmann wasn't a "serious player" in the national Republican Party and publicly doubted her ability to win the GOP presidential nomination. Rollins has since changed his tune—because the Bachmann campaign hired him.

Kevin is on vacation, so Nick Baumann and I are filling in this week.

I keep hammering away at the GOP's preposterous cut-and-grow plan—that the economy will really begin to grow and create jobs only after slashing spending to the bone—but that's because people are still buying what the Republicans are peddling.

The following analysis, however, should once more put to rest any ideas that cut-and-grow is the right course for this country. Using a nifty chart, Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress, plots out states that have slashed spending and states that have increased it, and then shows how well their respective economies have fared.

Via Adam Hirsch, Center for American ProgressVia Adam Hersh, Center for American ProgressAs Hersh notes in this accompanying post, states that boosted spending saw decreasing unemployment and increasing economic growth. Those who cut back saw the opposite happen.

It's one thing for governors such as Florida's Rick Scott, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich to enact publicly unpopular policies that ultimately help their states. (And boy are they unpopular.) It's quite another to do so when the data shows that you're only shooting yourself in the foot. The question is, when will Republicans in Washington figure this out?

Picture this: Collecting dust in high-security vaults, unwanted by Congress and the American public, are more than a billion golden coins bearing the likenesses of famous politicians. Current lawmakers won't discuss them. But if revealed to the public, the treasure trove could prove scandalous.

Sound like an airport pulp thriller? Nope—it's just the latest embarrassing boondoggle to surface in Washington, exposed by the sharp folks at NPR.

They report today that more than a billion dollars in $1 coins—you know, those hefty golden coins that were meant to replace the dollar bill—are sitting around in Federal Reserve vaults doing, well, nothing of value. At a cost of $300 million to manufacture, the unused coins are the result of Congress' repeated failures to wean American consumers off of paper dollar bills, which, according to the Government Accountability Office, would benefit the government to the tune of roughly $5.5 billion over three decades.

Vast quantities of these coins are in storage "with no perceivable benefit to the taxpayer," the Fed told Congress in a report last year. Not only are these new coins wasting money, the Fed noted in the same report, but officials "have no reason to expect demand to improve." Turns out we Americans like our crisp dollar bills just fine, thank you very much.

Here's one scene I enjoyed, when NPR reporters visited a Fed vault storing these abandoned coins:

Inside one basementlike Federal Reserve vault in Baltimore, NPR was able to see 45 million $1 coins of various types. The coins were overflow from vaults elsewhere.

And despite a national indifference to the coins, they were heavily guarded.

A group of journalists from NPR passed through a metal detector and special secure doorway before reaching the inner entrance to the vault, a fence gate secured by two common Master padlocks.

[...]

Inside the vault, dollar coins languished in clear plastic bags piled high on sturdy metal pallets that looked like baby cribs.

You should listen to/read the story yourself. Then file it away in the Department of Destroying Confidence in Our Government.