President could make good on U.S. obligations

President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at North Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va., where he discussed the national debt.

Kai Ryssdal: So we are, as of this Friday in late June, a bit more than five weeks away from the government hitting the debt limit -- $14.3 trillion and not a penny more. Conventional wisdom has it that when the Treasury can't borrow to pay our bills anymore, it'll be something close to economic Armageddon. But here's a not-unrelated thought. What if the debt ceiling isn't constitutional? What if the president just ignored the limit and told Timothy Geithner and the gang over at the Treasury Department to keep on selling bonds and paying what we owe?

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale has more on the latest economic trial balloon.


John Dimsdale Here's how the argument goes: When Congress passes spending bills, it knows there isn't enough cash to pay for it all. By approving those obligations anyway, Congress is implicitly committing the government to borrow the money to meet them. By later imposing a limit on borrowing -- which is what the debt ceiling is -- Congress is illegally counteracting its own laws.

Norman Ornstein: Let's face it, the reality is having a separate vote on the debt ceiling makes no sense.

Norman Ornstein follows Congress and the executive branch for the American Enterprise Institute.

Ornstein: The debt ceiling is a reflection of the debts that you have already incurred. And every time Congress passes a budget, it's obligating itself to future debts.

So when it approves a budget, Congress requires the president to meet those obligations -- by borrowing if necessary. If he continues to borrow, the president would have to ignore the second congressional mandate: to not breach the debt limit.

In the inevitable legal challenge to such a decision, University of Baltimore law school professor Garrett Epps cites a clause in the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

Garrett Epps: Section four says the validity of the public debt of the United States, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties in suppression of rebellion, shall not be questioned.

That amendment was adopted just after the Civil War when southern lawmakers were questioning the union army's debts.

Epps: That language would provide a serious basis for going outside the congressional debt ceiling process.

But snubbing the debt ceiling would be a "nuclear option," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. He doubts President Obama will go for it.

Julian Zelizer: He is a pragmatic politician. His bias is to cut a deal. That's where he always moves. And so I don't think he is just going to ignore the debt ceiling.

Still, congressional Democrats are thinking about lobbying the president to breach the limit. But only as a last resort.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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