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By Any Means Possible: Republican Threats and the Debt Ceiling

07/27/2011 12:53 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011
  • Geoffrey R. Stone Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago

A threat is an expression of intention to inflict harm on others unless the target of the threat agrees to do what the person making the threat demands. A threat uses coercion rather than persuasion to effect change. As a general rule, democratic governments do not negotiate with those who threaten their people with harm. The reason is simple: Democracies should not make public policy in response to threats, and those who threaten should not be rewarded for threatening harm to the nation.

This is the dilemma facing President Obama in the current debt ceiling crisis. The debt ceiling has never before been used as a leverage point for partisan political demands. As Mr. Obama observed in his address to the nation on July 25, presidents from Eisenhower to Bush II have regularly raised the debt ceiling without controversy and without facing anything like the current Republican intransigence.

But what makes that intransigence an immoral "threat" rather than an ordinary political disagreement? The answer is that the current controversy really has nothing to do with the debt ceiling. Rather, Republicans who do not have the votes to enact their preferred policies into law are threatening to throw the nation into economic chaos by refusing to increase the debt ceiling unless the President accedes to their demands. By threatening to wreak havoc with the national interest, they are attempting to coerce rather than persuade the nation into doing what they want.

The key point is that this controversy is not about the debt ceiling itself. All the issues about deficits and spending and taxes can be hashed out entirely apart from the debt ceiling issue. But the Republicans are exploiting the need to increase the debt limit in order to hold the nation itself hostage to their demands. It would be no different if the Republicans threatened not to raise the debt limit unless the President agreed to nominate Grover Norquist to the Supreme Court or to repeal of the Civil Rights Act or invade Pakistan or pull out of the United Nations. This is not democratic governance. This is not even political obstructionism. It is blackmail, plain and simple, where the threatened victim is the nation itself.

Of course, the President could temporarily avert disaster by giving in to those who are threatening to bring about chaos. But if he does so, he will invite similarly destructive conduct in the future. As the President warned in his speech to the nation, if he gives in to the Republican demands now, "in six months they'll do this again."

The Republicans have every right to try to get their preferred policies enacted into law and they have every right to refuse to raise the debt ceiling (though that would be calamitously stupid). But what they cannot morally do is to attempt to get their preferred policies enacted into law by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. It is the connection between the two that makes their strategy immoral.

In this sense, their conduct is very much like blackmail. Suppose X says to Y, "If you don't give me $1,000 I will tell your boss that you voted for Obama." X has every right to tell the boss, but it is unlawful for him to threaten to tell the boss in order to coerce Y to give him the $1,000. That is what the Republicans are doing here.

By threatening to destroy the economy if they don't get their way, those Republicans who are pursuing this course may be honoring their pledge not to raise taxes, but they are also dishonoring the very spirit of their oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post used the word "terrorism" as metaphor, contrary to our policy of avoiding such characterizations. The author has therefore revised the post to read as it does now.

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