why the president should ignore the debt limit

Here are two legalistic reasons that the president should simply ignore the debt limit if Congress fails to raise it by August 2 (or whenever the federal government surpasses the limit and faces default).

First, after Congress passed the most recent increase in the debt limit, it passed a budget that would necessarily cause the debt limit to be exceeded. The budget supersedes the debt limit law. It is impossible to follow both laws, so the president is free to choose to follow the budget.

Second, the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, section 4, states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” The current debt of the US was authorized by the laws that required the various expenditures made in the current fiscal year, and so it “shall not be questioned.”

I would be the first to admit that these are legal judgment calls, and there are other plausible readings of the law and constitution. But if Congress fails to raise the debt limit and the government defaults, the results will be disastrous. On the other hand, if the president openly exceeds the debt limit, what happens?

  1. Congress sues him, but the Supreme Court will, if it follows its own precedents, dismiss the suit.
  2. The House impeaches him. That is not an outcome that any president should welcome; at a minimum, it brings discredit on the House. But impeachment is better for ourĀ  constitutional system than defaulting on the debt would be. And it would probably pay off very well for this particular president, as Members of the House from swing districts would be forced to vote on the articles of impeachment, and then the Senate would refuse to convict. Two Democratic presidents in a row would emerge stronger after being impeached.

There is, of course, a third option: the president could agree to enough of the Republicans’ demands for structural changes in the federal budget and the role of government in America that they would raise the debt limit. But that presents three problems: deep cuts in vital programs during a near-recession, complete abdication of this president’s and all his successors’ power, and severely diminished odds of being reelected.

To be clear, I think the Congressional Republicans have a right to negotiate for the budgetary and policy outcomes that they want. That is what the regular budget process is for–the Congress must pass and the president must sign a set of tax and appropriations bills. They negotiate until they agree, and if they miss the deadline, the government goes into temporary shutdown. The collateral damage to the rest of us is limited. In contrast, missing the debt limit deadline by even five minutes means default. Therefore, using the debt limit vote as a lever for policy change is unacceptable.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.