Skip to main content

Obama should override the debt ceiling

By Neil H. Buchanan and Michael C. Dorf, Special to CNN
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 1618 GMT (0018 HKT)
Press secretary Jay Carney tells reporters the White House will not negotiate with Congress about raising the debt ceiling.
Press secretary Jay Carney tells reporters the White House will not negotiate with Congress about raising the debt ceiling.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Debt ceiling puts Obama in a trap; executing law means violating others
  • A president cannot authorize spending, taxing or borrowing to avoid ceiling, they say
  • Writers: He should borrow exactly enough money to implement Congress' budget
  • That move would be the least unconstitutional solution to his "trilemma," they say

Editor's note: Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and professor of law at George Washington University Law School. Michael C. Dorf, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. Their article on the president's options in the face of the debt ceiling impasse appeared in the October 2012 issue of the Columbia Law Review, with a recent follow-up appearing in the online edition of the same journal.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama might soon find himself in a quandary in which basic arithmetic prevents him from faithfully executing all of the laws Congress has passed. The debt ceiling statute prohibits borrowing enough money to make up the difference between funds in the Treasury and legal obligations to spend.

Anything the president does would violate some law. Indeed, anything he does would be unconstitutional because all of the relevant powers -- spending, taxing and borrowing -- belong to Congress.

Michael Dorf
Michael Dorf
Neil Buchanan
Neil Buchanan

Many Washington insiders have assumed that if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, Obama could simply cut spending. But constitutional history says otherwise.

When President Richard Nixon tried to "impound" money that Congress had ordered him to spend, the courts slapped him down. During Bill Clinton's administration, the Supreme Court ruled that the president has only a limited ability to cut spending even with congressional authorization. He has no constitutional power to cut spending without such authorization.

If every action the president might plausibly take would usurp a power of Congress, what should he do? He should minimize the usurpation.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln unilaterally suspended habeas corpus. Lincoln argued that if that decision was unconstitutional, it was nonetheless necessary to avoid a greater evil: violating his constitutional oath to defend the Union. Faced with a dilemma, Lincoln chose the less unconstitutional course.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The same goes for this president from Illinois. If Congress creates a trilemma, he must choose the least unconstitutional option.

Some commentators suggest that the Treasury could generate $2 trillion for the government by minting two platinum coins, using an obscure law that was enacted for the express purpose of creating memorabilia. But doing so would be economically equivalent to borrowing $2 trillion and thus, even if technically legal, would violate the substance of the debt ceiling law.

In a constitutional crisis, analysis should rest on constitutional principles, not technicalities. The core issue is separation of powers: What course of action would minimize the executive taking over legislative authority?

The answer is violating the debt ceiling, not cutting spending or raising taxes. By borrowing exactly enough money to cover the difference between funds in the Treasury and expenditures required by law, the president would simply be implementing Congress' budget.

Let's make a deal
Dems push for $1 trillion tax revenue
Welcoming the freshman class

By contrast, a presidential decision to raise taxes or cut spending would require many policy-laden judgments: Whose taxes would be raised and by how much? What expenditures would be cut, to what degree and according to what criteria?

For the president to make these quintessentially legislative judgments on his own would usurp power on an enormous scale. Issuing debt beyond the debt ceiling would be unconstitutional but not as unconstitutional as raising taxes or cutting spending.

Despite some confusion, Obama has kept the least unconstitutional option on the table. In December, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the "administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling."

That observation is beside the point. True, some scholars argue that the debt ceiling violates Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. If so, then the debt ceiling is void and the president's power to borrow money comes, not from the 14th Amendment, but from the statute authorizing the Treasury secretary to "borrow on the credit of the United States government amounts necessary for expenditures authorized by law."

Putting aside the 14th Amendment, Carney's claim at most shows that unilaterally raising the debt ceiling would override Congress' borrowing authority. But that merely states one horn of the trilemma. Unilaterally raising taxes or cutting spending would usurp more congressional authority.

Our leaders can still act responsibly by raising the debt ceiling or, better yet, by repealing it entirely. Congress can then control federal debt simply by paying attention to the gap between spending and taxes. It should not force the president to usurp one of its powers.

But if Congress leaves the president no constitutional options, he must choose the least unconstitutional one: borrowing money beyond the debt ceiling.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of the writers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT