Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak briefly with key White House staffers concerning the on-going debate about the budget and the debt ceiling. Like every White House, the Obama Administration routinely invites constituency groups to offer advice or hear briefings on important matters. On occasion, I am invited to take part in such discussions.
My only advice to the White House this week was this: seriously consider invoking the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution if the U.S. Congress, dragged down by the Tea Party controlled U.S. House, is unable to embrace a compromise proposal to raise the debt ceiling and protect our national safety net.
Whether or not the 14th Amendment is a viable legal tool for rescuing the nation from defaulting on our debts is a matter of great debate. I'm a pastor, not a constitutional scholar. But I'm also pretty well versed in public policy matters and have listened closely to the debate over whether or not a president can invoke the 14th unilaterally to raise the debt ceiling if Congress does not act.
Yale law professor Jack M. Balkin thinks so. He told The New York Times recently:
"You're not supposed to hold the validity of the public debt hostage to achieve political ends," Mr. Balkin said. He added, though, that "Section 4 is a fail-safe that only comes into operation when everything else is exhausted."
Professor Balkin is not alone.
As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I am deeply concerned about the moral implications of not meeting our nation's debt obligations. Senior citizens and veterans, among others, would not receive expected payments. Worse yet, the worldwide economy could collapse. It has been said (and I've repeated this quote many times) that William Jennings Bryan, the great evangelist, once commented that every great economic question is in reality a great moral question. This is why over 6,000 clergy have written to President Obama asking him to do everything in his power to protect the "least of these" in our society during this debate and why this week a group of clergy were arrested at the U.S. Capitol protesting proposed cuts to critically needed programs.
President Obama is not dealing with reasonable leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Tea Party caucus has made clear that only the near total collapse of America's domestic government will satisfy their aspirations. The American people do not support this, according to the polls, so why go down a dangerous road that will hurt the common good of our nation?
If no honest compromise arises in the next few days -- a compromise that increases taxes on the wealthy while cutting spending and that also protects the nation's safety net -- President Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment despite the political risks. Yes, some in the U.S. House might try and impeach the president and what the courts might do is unknown. The American people, I believe, will see that President Obama made every sincere effort to negotiate and at every turn was rejected. Principled leadership is risky, no doubt, but there may be no other moral alternative that saves the nation -- and the world -- from economic chaos. It is time to draw a line in the sand and risk everything because at the moment we have everything to lose.
My prayers are with President Obama and his staff, along with members of Congress, as they consider these issues.