The Congress appropriates money. The Congress levies taxes. (Subject, of course, to the President’s veto power.) The President must spend appropriated money and collect the revenue due under the tax laws. That’s part of taking care that the laws be faithfully executed. He can’t collect a nickle more than is due or spend a nickle less than appropriated.

Expenditures minus revenues constitute this year’s deficit. Last year’s debt plus this year’s deficit determines this year’s debt. In order to pay the bills Congress has ordered him to incur, the President needs to borrow money. So having Congress pass a separate piece of legislation authorizing the President to borrow the money the Congress has already told him to spend makes no logical sense.

Barack Obama’s proposal – based on an election-year stunt dreamed up by Mitch McConnell during the last artificial debt crisis – that the President be given the power to extend the debt ceiling subject to Congressional veto doesn’t make much more sense logically than the current system: it merely gives the Congress the power to order that the United States of America default on its lawful obligations. But at least it shifts the initiative in a way that would probably end the recurrent hostage situations arising under the new law: the Congress would have to actively order the Executive to default rather than being able to do so passive-aggressively. And it could matter enormously if Obama sticks to his public commitment not to negotiate with the hostage-takers in the future.

McConnell, who cares more about a potential Tea Party challenger than he does about the health of the economy or the good credit (not to mention the national honor) of the United States, decided to play a trick on Harry Reid. McConnell proposed to bring the President’s version of McConnell’s own proposal up for a vote, assuming (not unreasonably, based on the historical record) that the cowardice of some of his Democratic colleagues was as deep as his own fathomless scoundrelism and that the proposal therefore couldn’t command a majority in the Senate. McConnell could then make fun of Reid for not being able to muster the votes for the President’s proposal.

But Reid, after hastily counting backbones, seems to have found at least 50 of them present and accounted for, and proposed to take McConnell up on his offer: at which point McConnell decided to filibuster the very provision on which he had asked for a vote.

Nothing could better sum up either the profound unseriousness of the contemporary Republican Party or the utter folly of allowing that party to convert the Senate from an body where majority rule was tempered by extensive powers of delay, and a very occasional filibuster, into an institution where a super-majority is required for every bit of routine business.

Now that Reid knows he has a majority for ending the debt-ceiling nonsense, I hope he brings it up at every opportunity, and in particular insists that it be part of any “Fiscal Cliff” deal. And I hope that the newly vertebrate Senate Democrats continue to stand erect in January for major filibuster reform.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.