The laws surrounding the federal debt limit are logically inconsistent, the legislative equivalent of “this sentence is a lie.” If we assume the trillion dollar platinum coin solution or moral obligation coupons are not viable, what Congress has done with the debt limit in conjunction with other laws is to force the executive branch into breaking the law. It has made it logically impossible for the President to dutifully follow all of the laws still in effect.
Several laws passed by Congress require the executive branch to give different entities money at specific times. Congress has also set a borrowing limit which would theoretically prevent the executive branch from getting the money it is still legally required to give out. There is basically nothing in the relevant legislation regarding how to deal with this conflict, and the President literally can’t do both. He must break some laws, and the question then becomes which laws should he break.
The President could ignore just the debt limit law and continue to fulfill all the spending laws. Or, the President could fulfill the debt limit law, but that would require ignoring multiple other laws which would force the President to randomly pick who does and does not get paid.
I think everyone involved in this potentially enormous and important fight — including the President, the Treasury Secretary, Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, etc. — should be forced to answer this simple question: If Congress creates a legalistic catch-22 that forces the government to break its own laws, which law do they think should be broken, and why does that one takes precedence?
I would love to hear individuals threatening not to raise the debt limit have to explain why that law must be followed, but the President must break other contradictory laws to do so. I’m very interested in hearing, for example, the legal reasoning behind why Wall Street bond holders should still be paid while doctors, FBI agents and seniors should be stiffed.
It is amazing that we are on the precipice of an incredibly important policy event and those involved haven’t even been made to explain what they legally think is at stake, and why.
Photo by Barack Obama under Creative Commons license