No Plan B?

By Joe Firestone

Bob Woodward’s releasing a new book, so we are now seeing articles based on it. A few days back, The Washington Post published the “Inside story of Obama’s struggle to keep Congress from controlling outcome of debt ceiling crisis.” This account is a pretty downbeat one of how our political leaders and President Obama handled the debt ceiling crisis of the summer of 2011. I want to comment on what for me was the most salient point: that during the crisis, the President had no “Plan B” to get around the debt ceiling beyond negotiating a deal with Congress.

According to Woodward, the President asked his Senior staff to come up with a Plan B, because the compromise Congressional leaders first proposed to him would have required a two-step increase in the debt limit, with the second step coming near the time of the 2012 election, opening the possibility that the House Republicans would be able to hold the country and the financial world hostage in the run-up to the election. The President rejected the deal, and sent Harry Reid and his Chief of Staff David Krone back to get another that would not require the hostage taking two-step. Meanwhile, Obama’s staff tried to put together a Plan B.

But when Harry Reid couldn’t get a deal from John Boehner, and the House Republicans passed a two-step plan on July 29th, the President again called for more options. Woodward reports none except for accepting the Republican deal, which Geithner favored, and vetoing the House Bill if Harry Reid “folded” and the Senate passed it, which the President favored. The President, concerned about the likely continuance of Republican blackmail and hostage taking, and believing that he was out of options, indicated that he would veto a two-step deal even if the Democrats folded. However:

 ”Obama never had to confront the veto question. A few days later, House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan. The final plan accepted a debt limit increase that would take the country through the 2012 presidential contest. It also postponed $2.4 trillion in spending cuts until early 2013.”

So, the President, and according Geithner, the world financial markets, survived that confrontation because the Republicans folded. But, if Woodward is right, if the Republicans had stood firm, Obama would have vetoed the bill, because no other options had been developed by the White House staff.

Yet there were at least four other options that were offered in the blogosphere and the news media at the time, three of them at CNN, that a well-informed White House might have been expected to know about. So, the obvious question is why is there no indication in Woodward’s account that the White House was aware of other options except a veto or surrender to the House Republicans to handle the crisis? The four options were:

1. a selective default strategy by the Executive, prioritizing not paying for things that Congress needed, and perhaps not paying debt to the Fed when it falls due and working with the Fed to get the $1.6 Trillion in bonds that it was holding canceled;

2. an exploding option involving selling a 90-day option to the Fed for purchasing some Federal property for $ 2 Trillion. Then when Congress lifts the debt ceiling, the Treasury could buy back the option for one dollar, or the Fed could simply let the option expire;

3. using the authority of a 1996 law to mint proof platinum coins with arbitrary face values in the trillions of dollars to fill the Treasury General Account (TGA) with enough money to cease issuing debt instruments, and even enough to pay off the existing debt; and

4. using the authority of the 14th Amendment to keep issuing debt in defiance of the debt ceiling, while declaring that the debt ceiling legislation was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment in the context of Congressional appropriations passed after the debt ceiling mandating deficit spending.

Since, the summer of 2011, beowulf has offered a fifth option  for getting around the debt ceiling by issuing consols. Consols are debt instruments that pay a fixed rate on interest in perpetuity, but never promise principal repayment at a maturity date. The debt ceiling law is written in such a way that what counts against the ceiling is the principal repayment guaranteed by the instrument. Since consols provide no principal repayment, one can have unlimited consol issuance without increasing the debt-subject-to-the-limit.

The links above provide explanations of the various options, so I won’t describe them in more detail than I’ve already done here. But I do want to note a couple of points.

First, if Woodward is right that none of these options was part of the internal deliberations of the Administration about a Plan B that the President might have fallen back on, if he had to veto a Congressional Bill that would have required a two-step debt ceiling process, then what’s wrong with a White House staff and a Treasury Secretary that evidently weren’t watching the web blogosphere and cable media closely enough to know that these “Plan B” options existed? It seems to me that between the staff and the Treasury, they should have known about all of these Plan B options and presented them to the President for consideration. So, if Woodward is right, then this White House staff and his Treasury Secretary both need to upgrade their advisory capabilities significantly before the next crisis hits, so that the President has a Plan B, C,and even D, that might succeed in defusing a renewed Republican attempt to blackmail the Administration into making deals it really would rather not make.

On the other hand, perhaps the President did know about all of these options, or at least all of them except consols, but Bob Woodward just missed their presence in Administration deliberations, and the Administration itself just decided not to use any of them in a viable Plan B for reasons unknown to him. If this last alternative is true, then Woodward missed an important part of the story of the debt ceiling crisis, and perhaps should go back and see if he can find out whether there were, in fact, other options that entered the deliberation and decision processes of the White House.

Yves Smith, in an interview with Paul Jay, after describing three of the options, opines that the Administration may have been actually seeking a Government shutdown with Congress in the summer of 2011, because it would have created the atmosphere of crisis that the President wanted to negotiate his grand bargain with Congress, then. Unfortunately, for him, if this view is true, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress failed to oblige him by “forcing” a veto of their two-step debt ceiling bill on him. And so they avoided the crisis, temporarily, but now we will have the sequestration crisis upon us at the end of the year, or perhaps an effort to defuse it in the lame duck.

If that happens, will the President still be talking about austerity and deficit reduction? Will he still be willing to place entitlement cuts on the table? We’ll have to wait until the election is over and perhaps later to find out for sure?


11 responses to “No Plan B?

  1. In addition to overlooking the various technical workarounds, we’re so conditioned to TINA that seeking a repeal of the debt ceiling law is too farfetched to even enter the discussion.

    • I don’t think these Republicans will abandon the debt ceiling, because they get to use it to take hostages; so I think the Dems have to take back the House and keep the Senate to get rid of it. And even if that happens, they still won’t be able to get rid of it without using the nuclear option on the filibuster! They’ve been incredibly resistant to doing that in the past!

  2. Can anyone comment on the constitutionality of the debt ceiling? If there is a challenge to be made, who has standing?

    • I think the President would have standing if he could show a conflict between the debt ceiling and appropriation laws. But he’d be better off not suing, but just declaring the law unconstitutional. Congress could contest that if both Houses agreed and sued the President, but precedents indicate that individual Congresspeople would not get standing.

  3. Just curious, could it be that the administration felt if they tried any of those measures you mentioned it would just end up in our highly politicized Supreme Court where it would be struck down and leave them looking the fool or lose whatever support they did have? Or perhaps the President is playing a game with that grand bargain trying to win over some of the oppostition?

    It is hard for me to believe that they did not know any of those escape routes. I seem to recall that Pres Clinton even suggested the constitutional route. Does not bode well for the future unless Romney wins, in which case some republicans and democrats will join forces to go past the far right wing. President Obama is being driven to support austerity whether he wants to or not (though I suspect he does want to. ) .

    • It’s been hard for me to believe they didn’t know the escape routes either. But:

      1) The implication of the Woodward narrative is that they didn’t

      2) White Houses are notorious for being insular bubbles that do not take time to understand what out groups are saying. This Administration has been quoted as saying that progressives are “effin retards” so perhaps they are less than careful at monitoring what the progressive blogosphere has to say about things. The discussion of alternatives was in the progressive blogosphere and didn’t even make the mainstream progressive blogs until the late spring and the summer of 2011.

      3. The most visible pieces mentioning alternatives by Felix Salmon, Matty Yglesias, Yves Smith and Jack Balkin didn’t appear until July. The most visible was Balkin’s piece at CNN linked to above. It appeared on July 28th, right in the middle of the crisis. During crises, White House bubbles intensify because they tend to focus on their own obsessive thinking about a problem without looking outside their ranks for other ideas. The framing of the crisis becomes paramount.

      There’s plenty of evidence that when this Administration makes decisions it approaches them by constructing a limited conceptual frame and ignores or does not look for alternatives outside of that frame. It’s very possible that the Administration framed the problem from the beginning as one of developing a negotiated solution with Congress and focused no resources on investigating alternatives that didn’t involve negotiation with Congress. This notion is consistent with Woodward’s reporting that there was no Plan B.

      On the question of whether it’s possible that they did know of alternatives, but thought that all of them would end up in the Courts where they would lose. It certainly is possible. But I also think it’s true that if they thought that, then they made a very superficial and poor judgement. Looking at the aletrnatives:

      1. PPCS — completely legal authorized by the 1996 law, which would have been a fiat accompli within a day or two. What’s to sue about? The only thing that can be done is to stop it from happening again. But the Senate is Democratic, and, in addition, the President has the veto.

      2. The exploding option. Again, that’s completely legal. Bernanke wouldn’t love it; but he’s part of the crazed bankster community and the last thing he wants is a US default precipitated by the right wing in Congress. If the President came to him with the exploding option idea, would he say no, with Wall Street screaming at him about the possibility of a default.? If he did Obama would have had Bob Rubin, Jamie Dimon, and Warren Buffet on him with an hour.

      3. What about the 14th Amendment? If the President just kept issuing debt and gave a speech explaining why the debt ceiling act was unconstitutional and produced conflicting mandates for the Executive, then Congress would have to sue. But the Senate would not support such a suit; and the house alone would have not have standing. Also, the Court would be very reluctant to take that case. If they did, Scalia, Thomas, Alito, and Roberts would be getting phone calls from Jamie Dimon telling them that Obama saved the world economy with his action. I think they’d stay far, far away from the controversy.

      4. The final option available at the time was selective default on the Fed held debt. This might be the most difficult of the four. Bernanke would probably try to cooperate because he knows the Fed can’t ever go broke. But the problem is that the debt is probably held on the balance sheets of the regional Fed banks, which are privately owned. So, the damage to their balance sheets might provoke resistance from the regional banks, and it’s unclear what the form of that resistance would be.

      In sum however, 3 of the 4 options seem very practical to do, with the first two not even involving law suits. So, if the White House actually considered and rejected them on grounds of possible law suits that seems pretty close to very loose thinking to me.

      Finally, on austerity, the President has a long record of favoring it, if you think about. So:

      a. In early meetings with journalists he promised “entitlement reform.”

      b. He restricted the size of the stimulus to about $800 Billion and took a big chance afer receiving warnings that it was far too small

      c. He insisted that the ACA be deficit neutral, which was a main reason why Medicare for All was taken off the table from the start.

      d. His later jobs initiatives were all “paid for.”

      e. He called for Congress to establish a deficit commission.

      f. When they didn’t do that he then established one in the Executive Branch and accepted funding for it from Pete Peterson, Mr. Austerity himself.

      g. When the Commission failed to issue a report, because it could not generate the required 14 – 4 majority, and Bowles and Simpson generated a Report of their own, he referred to that as The Commission Report, and has continued to do so until this very day when he continues to speak favorably if using that report as a framework for negotiating with the Republicans

      h. He continues to tell the Republicans that we need $4 Trillion in long-term deficit reduction and that he is willing to do that using a ratio of 2.5-1 spending cuts to tax increases, and that moreover “everything” should be on the table.

      There’s every evidence, in other words, that Obama is a deficit hawk willing to reduce entitlement as well as other key spending for the sake of his faux ideas about fiscal responsibility. The only question is whether the continued weakness of the economy and the employment picture persuades him to back off once again.

  4. Would it be wrong to understand that the debt ceiling is an artifact left over from commodity based currency? Useful in determining spending limits necessary not to overdraw the backing mass on hand in the national vaults and put the currency into legal jeopardy and breaking the fundamental trust and confidence in the economic utility of money? Did this economic marker carry over when gold backing for currency was abandoned to act as a restraint on unrestricted spending, imposing a moral and political no-no upon excess? Does the debt ceiling still function as a restraint what-so-ever? Or has it become an economic tonsil, extraneous, cause of discomfort or disease in its continuing presence.?

    The debt ceiling appears as a structural member of the neo-capitalist delusions to economic credibility and intellectual competence, whereas critical examination of the ideology reveals no hint of foundation underlaying any part of their illusionary edifice; from ‘free markets’ totally befouled by monopoly; through ‘invisible hand’ abdicating lawful control; to [fill in blank] attempts at hiding some chicanery or clever cunning. A countervailing economic edifice is required, referenced, coherent and cohesive, meaningful and founded in reality rather than the madness of neo-capitalism.

    • I think the debt ceiling is a hangover from gold standard days. It was never repealed even when the Ds had control of Congress because its extension was always a pro forma matter. But now the Rs use it to hold the Republic hostage and to negotiate spending cuts in programs they don’t like that they were not able to win during the normal appropriations process and that they don’t have the guts to vote against when they come up in regular appropriation bills.

      The good thing about the debt ceiling crises is that they give us the chance to discuss whether debt issuance itself is necessary. MMT economists know that it is not, and also know that money “printing” is not, by itself a cause of inflation. Crises over the debt ceiling give us a chance to educate the public about the truth on these matters.

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