What You Need to Know about the Debt Ceiling


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The need for Congress to increase the existing $16.7 trillion debt ceiling by October 17 does not involve increasing the deficit or spending but rather allows the government to issue debt to cover the costs of legislation that Congress has already enacted — including interest payments on existing debt.

In most governments around the world, any time a legislature approves spending or tax cuts that create a deficit or increase the deficit, the central bank is authorized to issue whatever debt is needed to accomplish this. The U.S. has a strange law, arising mainly out of a historical accident, which bars the federal government’s debt from rising above a certain level — even though the debt may be on course to blow through that limit because of the spending measures and tax cuts already enacted by Congress.

It’s generally been recognized that it would be irrational for Congress to refuse to raise the debt ceiling when it is necessary to carry out legislation already enacted by the same Congress. Past votes against debt ceiling increases were considered “message” votes, cast when it was clear that the increase would pass both chambers and be signed by the President. (And contrary to claims of Congressional Republicans, most deficit-reduction bills are enacted separately from the debt ceiling increases.)

That changed in 2011, when Congressional Republicans refused to increase the debt ceiling unless President Obama gave them “concessions” (which is a strange word to use when these “concessions” are in return for avoiding a debt default that would cause economic catastrophe for all of us). The concession given by the President was basically the spending caps and sequestration enacted as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

This event seems to have led Congressional Republicans to believe that threatening to cause the U.S. to default on its debt obligations is an effective and rational way to extract concessions from the President and the Democrats who control the Senate. This leads us to the next point…

House Republicans (or a faction of them) now refuse to raise the debt ceiling (in other words, threaten that the U.S. will default on its debt obligations) unless several unrelated parts of their legislative agenda are enacted.

The House Republicans have drafted a bill to raise the debt ceiling — and also enact a long list of items on the GOP agenda, including but not limited to: approving the Keystone pipeline, enacting tort “reform,” delaying health care reform for a year, means-testing Medicare, abolishing part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform, and setting up a process to enact a tax reform along the lines of the tax provisions in the most recent Ryan budget. This is the same Ryan tax plan that would provide millionaires with an average tax cut of at least $200,000 annually, as explained in a CTJ report

There are extremely strong legal arguments that if the debt ceiling is not raised in time, the President should declare that the debt ceiling itself is illegal and ignore it.

If Congress fails to enact an increase in the debt ceiling before October 17, the President will face laws that contradict each other: on the one hand, laws requiring money to be spent on various programs and debts to be paid, and on the other hand, the debt ceiling which will bar him from borrowing the funds necessary to do this. So if the debt limit is not increased, then President Obama will have to violate the law one way or another. Several government experts and attorneys have examined this issue and concluded that if the President must ignore one of these laws, he should ignore the debt ceiling.

This also makes the most sense as a matter of policy. If the debt ceiling is breached and the President does not ignore it, that will mean that one chamber of Congress can use periodic threats of default to control the executive branch of government, which would completely upend the Constitutional arrangement of separation of powers.

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