In his quest to get the debt ceiling raised, President Obama issued a threat in his Wednesday press conference that troops won’t get paid and veterans’ pension payments will be delayed. He warned of delays in Social Security payments as well. It’s important to understand that these comments constitute a threat (which may or may not be a hollow one). Obama is not stating some inescapable reality, to which he along with the rest of us is subject. If retirees and vets see a delay in their payments, it will be because Obama himself decides to hold the payments up. Moreover, Obama is not caught in a trap when it comes to paying the troops; he can make sure they get paid, if it’s his priority to do so.
The payments to retirees are going to go out unless Obama stops them. The debt ceiling doesn’t prevent those payments from being made. It requires that other types of federal expenditures – current-year operating expenses like federal purchases, welfare outlays, payrolls, etc – be suspended or managed differently.
The two Social Security Trust Funds (one for old-age benefits and one for disability benefits) had nearly $2.7 trillion in assets at the end of fiscal year 2011, the most recent for which a trustees’ report is posted online. The funds are used every year to ensure obligated pay-outs to beneficiaries, and have been borrowed against many times by Congress, under routine fiscal circumstances. While repayment of any amount expended during a government shut-down should be part of a debt-ceiling deal, the trusts allow Social Security payments to be made on time during a shut-down – unless Obama decides against that.
Likewise, the Military Retirement Fund had about $428 billion in total assets at the end of fiscal year 2012, three-and-a-half months ago. The fund’s assets can certainly be used to make on-time pension payments to veterans in early 2013 – again, with a repayment plan as part of the debt-ceiling deal. In fact, military retired pay is already programmed for electronic distribution throughout FY2013; it takes active intervention to prevent it from being distributed.
Active-duty military pay is a current-year expenditure, and would be directly jeopardized by a government shut-down. But whether or not the troops get paid is up to Obama’s leadership. He could agree with Congress to set aside enough to pay the troops while the negotiations continue – a move that could well require cutting or suspending expenditures elsewhere in the federal government, in order to remain under the debt ceiling until a deal was reached.
Obama could also get a read from his attorneys on the precedents for and propriety of borrowing against one of the big trust funds to meet the uniformed payroll during the government crisis. Paying the troops, especially when the military is forward-deployed and much of it is in combat in Afghanistan, ought to be politically unifying. It’s hard to imagine Congress trying to impeach or otherwise hobble Obama over the actions he might take to ensure the troops are paid.
What Obama is doing, in effect, is issuing threats about what he will do, if Republicans don’t give him what he wants. But he’s representing the threats as a consequence for which the GOP lawmakers would be responsible.
This kind of mendacious demagoguery flourishes when the press is biased and/or cowed, and fails to challenge the political leaders. Every appeal from the leadership gets to be emotional; government is discussed in unaccountable, irrational, and even hysterical terms, as when the president postulated, in his speech on gun restrictions during the same press conference, that the victims of mass shootings had been “denied their rights” by the shooters. The distinction between committing crimes against individuals, which the citizens can do, and denying the people’s rights – which only government can do – is one of the most important concepts underlying the American system of government. But Obama elided it out of existence on Wednesday, in his quest to depict the use of firearms as, principally, a means of injuring others.
Parse, parse, parse, my friends. This president doesn’t speak in the terms of American political philosophy, which holds government and its leaders accountable for meanings both philosophical and practical. It is not our practice, in American government, to shrug off misleading demagoguery. That’s not “business as usual” for us. Our president is supposed to bind himself to constitutional meanings. He is supposed to depict the actions of government honestly. It’s a big deal that this one doesn’t.