Jack Balkin makes sense on how Obama should handle debt-limit problem

Ignore the problem. It’s not a problem.

Legal scholar Jack Balkin argues that the fourteenth amendment does not give President Obama the power to raise the debt limit unilaterally, but it does give the president the obligation to ensure that bondholders get paid before anything else. Meaning: government shutdown. Let the Republicans force a government shutdown. Pretty good article. Here are some tidbits (link):

Republicans are in a pretty poor bargaining position in the fiscal cliff negotiations. They know that if President Obama simply does nothing, the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1st and defense spending will be cut. At that point Obama can propose lowering taxes for the middle class–but not the rich–and raising defense spending as part of new grand bargain on taxes and spending. The Republicans will be hard pressed to say no. After all, if they refuse to play ball, all they will get is higher taxes and cuts to defense. That’s not winning.

As a result, House Speaker John Boehner has tried to return to the same strategy he used in the summer of 2011. He wants to tie the debate over taxes and spending to an increase in the debt ceiling. It’s important to understand that raising the debt ceiling does not increase spending by itself. It merely allows the Treasury to issue new government bonds to pay for monies that Congress has already appropriated by law. Essentially, refusing to raise the debt ceiling after you’ve already appropriated expenditures is like telling your creditors that you won’t pay debts you’ve already contracted because you have conveniently decided to run out of money.

The government is on course to reach the current cap on the debt ceiling of approximately 16.4 trillion dollars in February or March of 2013. The Republicans’ threat is the same as they made in 2011. Unless President Obama agrees to spending cuts and tax policies the Republicans like, they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling and the United States will go into default.


If Congressional Republicans are threatening to let the nation to default on its debts if Obama doesn’t agree to their demands, they are violating the Constitution. And the president should call them out for such an outrageous demand. But does that mean that the president can raise the debt ceiling himself to remedy the violation?

Not so fast. Article I, section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the authority to borrow on the credit of the United States. Even so, under section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment the president has an independent constitutional obligation not to allow the validity of the debt of the United States to be put into question. That means, at the very least, that the president must make sure that interest payments continue on existing federal bonds and similar obligations. He must assure bondholders that they will continue to get paid even after the debt ceiling is reached.

If the president follows his constitutional obligations, then some government operations will not get funded because payments to the bondholders must come first. That means a partial government shutdown, with more and more of the government closed as the president continues to pay the bondholders.


The president’s obligation to pay the bondholders first– and not the power to ignore the debt ceiling–is how the Fourteenth Amendment helps the president resolve any debt ceiling crisis. All he has to do is follow the Constitution and he will come out on top. He doesn’t have to raise the debt limit at all. Instead, he must calmly explain to Republicans in advance what he will do — and not do — if they remain intransigent. He must explain to them that their course of action will inevitably lead to a government shutdown, and that the shutdown — and its associated costs to the country — will be on their heads.

This entry was posted in macro-economics, politics, The End of the GOP. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s