This week, the Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives did something that you wouldn’t think is even possible: they introduced (and then the House passed) a five-page bill that, despite its brevity, may violate two separate provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
The bill increases the debt limit by some unspecified amount, but only for those expenditures “necessary to fund a commitment by the Federal Government that required payment before May 19, 2013.” What does “necessary” mean here? I don’t know, and the bill doesn’t say. What about “commitment” and “required” – what do they mean? Don’t know; doesn’t say. Given sovereign immunity, I’m not sure that any payments by the federal government are ever “required” per se. What if the Government said, “are you going to make me?”
Up until now, the federal debt limit has been a number. Now it’s a concept, and an undefined one at that. I find it hard to square that vagueness with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that: “The validity of the public debt . . . shall not be questioned.”
Not content with establishing that constitutional dilemma alone, the Republican leadership then made Congressional pay dependent on passing a budget. The bill says that if the Senate doesn’t pass a budget, then Senate pay (which is monthly) is postponed to the first week of 2015. Specifically, it changes pay from $14,500 a month to zero per month, and then something like a $300,000 lump sum on Jan. 2, 2015.
I imagine that the polling on that looks good, but what about the 27th Amendment? The 27th Amendment provides: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” The Republican leadership bill “varies” Senate compensation by postponing it for two years. (It also sticks a finger in the eye of the Senate, but what else is new?)
If you follow Tea Party yammerings, as I do, then you recognize that this “no budget, no pay” idea had been floating around in the Tea Party porcelain bowl for several years now. Right after it was introduced, the Republican Chairman of the Government Operations Committee (who presumably knows a thing or two about government operations) pointed out that this postponement would violate the 27th Amendment to the Constitution. (As Texas Gov. Rick Perry would say, “Oops.”) Then he said he was mistaken. But maybe when he said that he was mistaken, that’s when he was mistaken.
For goodness sake, we Members of Congress all swore to uphold the Constitution just two weeks earlier. The leader of the House Republican Caucus actually administered that oath to us. Couldn’t they at least have waited a little longer?
To make things even worse, just a few days before this bill came up, the House Republicans arranged to have Members of the House read the Constitution out loud on the Floor of the House. Were they all wearing earplugs?
And yet these right-wingers keep telling us that they are “constitutional conservatives.”
Anyway, I voted “no.” Because there is no way to vote “this is absurd.”
Tea Party Republicans, please don’t propose any bills that directly contravene the plain wording of the Constitution. If you were capable of embarrassment, you would be embarrassing yourselves.
Congressman Alan Grayson
Photo by Katie Harbath under Creative Commons license