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Arlen Specter: Congress is a profile in cowardice

Former Pennsylvania senator says debt ceiling fallback plan is an abdication of Congress' responsibility

By Arlen Specter

8:00 AM EDT, July 23, 2011

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Washington traditionally boasts about its' profiles in courage. Today, facing arguably the greatest potential financial crisis in American history, politics trumps economics as officials focus on the next election instead of the public interest.

The leader of the parade in profiles in cowardice is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with his ingenious, diabolical proposal, which avoids tough votes for Republicans and places all the blame on Democrats. It's all inside the beltway maneuvering and hard to explain, but it is indispensible for the American people to understand it so public opinion can be mobilized to stop it.

Senator McConnell wants an act of Congress to give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling on his own and then to decide where federal expenditures would be cut. Congress could overrule the president with a resolution of disapproval calculated to fail because it would be vetoed and an override by two-thirds of both houses would be a practical impossibility. This cynical plan would enable Republicans to vote for the sham resolution of disapproval and then claim no responsibility for raising the debt ceiling or for cutting popular programs. The Democrats would have to provide the votes to sustain the veto and get the blame for increased borrowing and curtailing popular social programs.

The plan is patently unconstitutional because Congress cannot delegate its' core responsibilities to the president. For example, Congress cannot give the president its authority to declare war. The Supreme Court held the legislation granting a line item veto unconstitutional because Congress could not authorize the president to eliminate individual appropriated items, appropriations a core Congressional power. Thus, the president could not today be empowered to unilaterally say what appropriated programs would be stricken. Congress has historically been indifferent to the constitutionality of legislation, leaving it to the courts to decide years later after the crises have passed.

The 87 newly elected House tea party representatives have good reason to defeat the McConnell plan because it relieves the pressure to achieve their objectives of reducing the deficit, the national debt and the size of government. If the House Republicans settle for posturing with votes to cut spending, cap the size of government and pass a balanced budget amendment but in the end enact the McConnell palliative, there will be many more profiles in cowardice.

Right now, the McConnell plan appears to have a real chance of winning with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid joining the effort and the White House intimating it might be acceptable as a last resort. Washington has a long record of taking the easy way out — kicking the can down the road, deferring problems to another day.

This could be the exception if President Barack Obama hangs tough, rejecting the McConnell plan and sticking to his earlier declaration, "don't call my bluff." A few weeks ago, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were negotiating a long term "grand bargain" for $4 trillion in deficit reductions, including $1 trillion in increased revenue. When House Republicans continued their adamant refusal to consider any tax increase, Speaker Boehner withdrew, though he and the president have reportedly resumed secret meetings. Now it's Senate Democrats who are objecting to the prospect of an Obama-Boehner deal.

Meanwhile, the so-called "Gang of Six," a bipartisan group of senators that has been working for months to craft a deficit reduction plan, has advanced a proposal similar to the Obama/Boehner "grand bargain," with $3.7 billion in deficit reduction including $1.2 billion in increased revenue. The plan has the potential for considerable bipartisan support; 49 senators —25 Democrats and 24 Republicans, including some staunch conservatives — held a closed-door meeting earlier this week to discuss it, with generally positive reviews. Republican House leaders indicated some interest in the proposal, with Mr. Boehner citing the "many similarities with the framework" of the Obama/Boehner proposal and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor noting it had "some constructive ideas to deal with our debt."

In assessing the political blame game, Republicans have to be concerned about a recent Quinnipiac poll showing 48 percent of Americans will blame Republicans if the debt ceiling gridlock precipitates an economic crisis. Just 34 percent would blame President Obama. They also remember that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Republicans got the blame for closing down the government in 1995. There may be enough pragmatic Republicans to join with Democrats to provide the votes to pass legislation like the Gang of Six proposal.

In 1982, an impasse was avoided when President Reagan agreed to $99 billion in higher taxes for $280 billion in reduced spending. That formula could work now.

Arlen Specter served as a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania from 1981-2011. He was a Republican until switching parties in 2009. In the fall, he will teach a course on the relationship between the Congress and Supreme Court at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His email is as@arlen-specter.net.