Debt Ceiling, Libya, Taxes Spur New Orwellianism

Democrats and Republicans are trying to redefine the debates over taxes, Libya, and the debt ceiling for political expediency.

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This is the summer that George Orwell's “Newspeak” makes its greatest headway in Washington. (Readers of the novel 1984 will recall the term as the process through which bureaucrats re-christened the “Department of War” the “Department of Peace” and administered torture through the “Ministry of Love.”)

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats and Republicans.]

The Senate has bogged down in its attempt to pass a nonbinding and nondescript resolution that accepts the Obama legal fiction that the military operations currently underway in and over Libya are not “hostilities.” Such tortured terminology allows the administration to circumvent the letter and spirit of the War Powers Resolution, which requires congressional authorization for military operations that extend beyond 60 days. It also frees the legislative branch of its constitutional obligation to hold the executive to account.

Not to be outdone, Republicans have practiced some “Newspeak” of their own. If the “farce” in the Democratic-controlled Senate could be called “When Is a War Not a War?” the Republican version could be titled, “When Is Tax is Not a Tax?”—or, to be fair to all sides—“When is Repeal of a Subsidy a Tax Increase?” Republican Sen. Tom Coburn from Oklahoma triggered this linguistic battle when he offered an amendment to rescind the ethanol subsidy. Coburn saw his measure as a means of raising revenue that could help reduce the nation's debt. [Check out cartoons on the national budget and deficit.]

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, sees elimination of subsidies as tax hikes on those who took advantage of tax incentives to invest in the production of a certain product. He argued that legislators who voted to eliminate the subsidy violated the “no tax pledge” they had signed. Norquist devised the “pledge,” by now his trademark, as a means of keeping its signers “in line” when it came to reducing the size of government.

Norquist's problem was that Coburn is no moderate with reason to fear Tea Party revolts back home. An ardent opponent of earmarks and increased government spending, Coburn made it safe for other Republicans to vote to end other subsidies. Look for linguistic and other compromises as Republicans insist that revenues raised in this manner be dedicated exclusively to debt reduction and payroll, corporate, and other tax cuts that actually might stimulate the economy. [See editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

With the GOP preparing to transcend its semantic squabbles, the president and some within his progressive base are poised to commence a third assault upon the English language. Perhaps fearful that Republicans have a point when they say that the public will blame Obama more than his opposition if the government actually were to default on its debts on August 2, they are scrambling for ways in which the president can meet the country's debt obligations without having to grant additional concessions to his ideological adversaries.

After months of insisting that the Constitution awarded Congress power over the nation's purse, while Obama repeatedly failed to submit proposals on debt reduction as he attacked all the Republicans proposed, some progressives now suggest that he bypass Congress entirely. They would have him do so by evoking the Fourteenth Amendment. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, sees authorization for such a move in one of its provisions, which holds that the “power of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.” [Vote now: Should Congress and the White House make a “mini” debt ceiling deal?]

A short reading both of history and of the amendment itself should give Obama pause before he pulls this trigger. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, assured that those who bore the costs of saving the union and banning slavery would be compensated for their efforts, whatever food fights preoccupied presidents and Congresses at any given time.

That this was much on the minds of the amendment's authors is made clear in language vanden Heuvel omitted in her article. The full section four of the Fourteenth Amendment reads:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

She concedes that Obama's following her advice might constitute “executive overreach,” but is smug in her belief that the Democratic Senate would block a House attempt to have the Supreme Court rule on its constitutionality. Following her advice would render Congress as irrelevant to the budgetary process as the pending Senate resolution would make it impotent in national security matters. [See a slide show of 6 consequences if the debt ceiling isn't raised.]

For the president to argue that language requiring the government to “pay pensions and bounties” to those who kept the United States the “last best hope” on earth, but not to those who sought to destroy it and keep 20 percent of its population in bondage, merely for the sake of political convenience, his lawyers would have to argue that the language of the amendment does not mean what it says. It would not be the first time they have done so.

The simultaneous assertions of one team of administrative lawyers asserting that violent military actions that kill do not constitute hostilities, and another citing the Fourteenth Amendment as a means of cutting Congress out of the budget process, would add a new chapter in the book Newspeak. Some know it as “Caesarism.”