Yesterday, President Obama said (h/t Charles Lofgren):
You have never seen in the history of the United States the debt ceiling or the threat of not raising the debt ceiling being used to extort a President or a governing party, and trying to force issues that have nothing to do with the budget and have nothing to do with the debt.Under the Constitution, the federal government is more than just the president. It does not make sense to speak of a single "governing party" in the United States. In James Madison Rules America, William Connelly writes:
In our separation-of-powers system, neither party is ever simply the government or the opposition, unlike the British parliamentary system, where each party knows where it stands. The quandary persists for congressional parties whether under conditions of so-called unified or divided government. The quandary is obvious under divided government.Republicans may oppose the president, but their majority in the House of Representatives is very much part of the government.
The rest of the president's statement was also problematic.
Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler writes:
In 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, Democrats in the Senate, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), sought to attach a campaign finance reform bill to the debt ceiling after the Watergate-era revelations about Nixon’s fundraising during the 1972 election. Their efforts were defeated by a filibuster, but it took days of debate and the lawmakers were criticized by commentators (and fellow lawmakers) for using “shotgun” tactics to try to hitch their pet cause to emergency must-pass legislation.
President Obama said that GOP lawmakers now are trying to “extort” repeal of the health care law via the debt limit, but that’s also what Democrats wanted to do with President Nixon, who opposed the campaign-finance reforms.
Indeed, Linda K. Kowalcky and Lance T. LeLoup wrote in a comprehensive study of the politics of the debt limit, for Public Administration Review, that “during this period, the genesis of a pattern developed that would eventually become full blown in the mid-1970s and 1980s: the use of the debt ceiling vote as a vehicle for other legislative matters.”
Clearly, Obama’s sweeping statement does not stand up to scrutiny, even with his caveat. Time and again, lawmakers have used the “must-pass” nature of the debt limit to force changes in unrelated laws. Often, the effort fails — as the GOP drive to repeal Obamacare almost certainly will. But Kowalcky and LeLoup speculate that one reason why Congress has not eliminated the debt limit, despite the political problems it poses, is because lawmakers enjoy the leverage it provides against the executive branch.