The McConnell Mechanism: Congress Makes Obama a King for Three Months

Congress made President Obama a temporary king the other day.

And the crown was placed upon his head by none other than the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell.

No joke.

On October 16th, Congress passed, and the following day the president signed into law, a bill (H.R.2775) to temporarily suspend the U.S. Government’s statutory debt limit and also temporarily shift Congress’s borrowing power to the president.

For the next three months, there will effectively be no way to limit the growth of the U.S. national debt.

The president will have unlimited power to borrow on the credit of the United States.

This is unprecedented. 

It’s not just a danger to our economy, it’s also unconstitutional in principle, and an alarming step toward monarchy.

The good news is it’s temporary. It will expire on February 8th. It should not be renewed.

The “McConnell Mechanism,” as the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has dubbed it, was quietly slipped into the debt ceiling bill with no public discussion or warning.

The Mechanism gives the president the ability to increase the debt without limit while giving Congress a new, streamlined parliamentary procedure with which to try to block the move.

In the event the president decides to borrow more money than Congress thinks acceptable, Congress can try to check him by passing a special “resolution of disapproval” using expedited procedures. The resolution is a law, like any other. If it passes, the president can veto it, and the Congress can override his veto by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Thanks to the Mechanism, Congressman and Senators can now cast a show vote to overturn a presidential debt hike, knowing that the overturn attempt will almost certainly fail.

Klein, who supports the idea, describes it as “actually kind of genius.”


The Mechanism shifts power rather ingeniously. And unconstitionally. For the next three months, Congress has effectively delegated to the president the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States,” in violation of the constitutional provision lodging that power exclusively in Congress (Article I, section 8, clause 2). 

Then there’s the policy problem: we’re already drowning in red ink. This week, the national debt surpassed $17,000,000,000,000 (seventeen trillion dollars). And Congress has made an additional $100,000,000,000,000 (hundred trillion dollars) in promises of future spending that we have no way to pay for, except with massive spending cuts, massive tax hikes, or a currency-destroying inflation.

The last thing our debt-soaked Uncle Sam needs is an unlimited tab.

And this little gift has come to us in typical Beltway fashion: without hearings, without public notice, and with nary a peep from our elected representatives.

Why did they do it? 

1) To shield Members of Congress from having to vote to increase the national debt. Such votes are always politically risky. Now the president can take care of it, all by himself.

2) To enable incumbents to vote against a debt hike without actually preventing it. The “resolution of disapproval” is a sham, designed to enable politicians to reap the political benefits of deficit spending with none of the risk.

3) To avert future debt ceiling standoffs. The debt ceiling fights of July 2011 and this past week were the product of the ongoing Tea Party rebellion against excessive deficit spending and bailouts. The bipartisan Beltway elite find these fights terribly inconvenient. It is time, they’ve decided, to abolish such standoffs forever, and put the Tea Party in its place.

This week’s bill may be part of an unfolding plan.

The McConnell Mechanism has actually been in existence for a couple of years, but in a comparatively benign form.

This week’s changes make it much more malign.

Named for its author, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Mechanism was first enacted in mid-2011 as part of the Budget Control Act, a product of the big debt ceiling fight of that year.

That earlier version was temporary. It expired in 2012, when the national debt reached a dollar amount specified in the statute.

Last February, President Obama signed a bill that removed the dollar cap, effectively eliminating the debt limit altogether. But it did so only temporary. In a sense, Congress had merely changed the form of the limitation from a fixed number of dollars to a fixed amount of time. That move was troubling, to be sure, but in the absence of the McConnell Mechanism it wasn’t necessarily fatal: Congress could check any excessive borrowing by the executive with a simple majority in each chamber.

This week, Congress took matters to a whole new level when it quietly reinstated the McConnell Mechanism.

The effect of these changes — removing the dollar cap, reinstating the Mechanism — is that the president may now increase the national debt on his own initiative and without limit.

This has never happened before.

Was it a result of conspiracy or accident? I’m unsure. But consider: First, they effectively removed Congress’s power to control borrowing. Then they removed any upper limit on that borrowing. If they are conspiring against the public, the logical next step in the progression would be to make the arrangement permanent.

If they try to do so, we will have our answer.

Now, to be fair to the Mechanism’s defenders, they will reject the contention that the president’s power is unlimited. They will say it is limited only borrowing “amounts necessary for expenditures authorized by law” (31 USC 3102) and “to meet existing commitments” (H.R.2775 [P.L. 113-46], sec. 1002(b)) (emphases added). In other words, the president can only borrow to pay for bills already legally incurred by Congress.

Sounds great.

But think about it. The power to determine precisely what is “authorized by law” and what are “existing commitments” rests with … the president.

Suppose he misinterprets what’s “authorized by law” or what’s an “existing commitment.” Could Congress override him? Not easily. It takes two-thirds of each chamber, remember, to override a veto — a very high bar.

Could the Supreme Court rein him in? Also unlikely. The federal courts can only step in if someone can show “standing,” i.e., that he’s been directly injured by the president’s action — also a very high bar, probably insuperable. Who could prove direct personal harm from the president’s borrowing a trillion dollars? 

Can we safely entrust our current president with unlimited borrowing power? We’ve seen how willing Mr. Obama is to stretch or ignore laws to secure his political ends.

For example: In early July, he administratively suspended the employer mandate in his own health care law, as if it were a mere suggestion rather than a legal requirement. When the House responded, paradoxically, by passing a bill to codify the suspension, he threatened to veto it!

ObamaCare, it seems, can only be amended by King Barack I.

No, the “authorized by law / existing commitments” limitation isn’t sufficient. It can’t stop an unprincipled chief executive. 

The borrowing power was placed in Congress’s hands for a reason. No one person can safely be trusted with that much power.

The McConnell Mechanism is dangerous, should never have been passed, and should be repealed immediately — before King Barack can wield it.

Dean Clancy is Vice President for Public Policy at FreedomWorks.