Monday, July 04, 2011

A Radical Republican Didn't Want Future Congresses Defaulting on Our Debt

Yglesias, in asking who our political heroes are, suggested the Radical Republicans of the 1860's and 70's deserve a little more mention. So I found it interesting that, when I was reading Jack Balkan's piece about how section 4 of the 14th Amendment came to be, I came across this quote from Senator Benjamin Wade, a Radical Republican from the Reconstruction Era:

[The proposed amendment] puts the debt incurred in the civil war on our part under the guardianship of the Constitution of the United States, so that a Congress cannot repudiate it. I believe that to do this wil give great confidence to capitalists and will be of incalculable pecuniary benefit to the United States, for I have no doubt that every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress.

Now, today's radical Republicans (who are really quite the opposite of the ones from the 1860's) love to talk about the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution. Of course, they will not look into the intent of Sen. Wade, because it suggests that their little temper tantrum in regards to the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. Of course, today's Republicans aren't big fans of the 14th Amendment in general (e.g., Rand Paul, who has promised to filibuster the debt ceiling bill), so I'm sure they'll either ignore this inconvenient fact, or just lie about it.

Balkan lays the whole thing right in their modern laps:

Like most inquiries into original understanding, this one does not resolve many of the most interesting questions. What it does suggest is an important structural principle. The threat of defaulting on government obligations is a powerful weapon, especially in a complex, interconnected world economy. Devoted partisans can use it to disrupt government, to roil ordinary politics, to undermine policies they do not like, even to seek political revenge. Section Four was placed in the Constitution to remove this weapon from ordinary politics.

Because sending this thing to Anthony Kennedy to decide would be too much for Wall Street to bear, I figure the Democrats will cave to Republican hostage taking and pay the ransom (trillions in cuts to the middle class and poor, while the rich get richer).  What a shame that we're not on better financial footing right now, because this is one constitutional showdown that really should happen. Either we're good for our debt, or we're not, and leaving that up to the whim of people who, like Michele Bachman, have a tenuous grasp of history and economics at best, is just stupid.

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