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There’s No Quick Fix for the Debt Ceiling

Christopher M. Russo
Barron's Magazine
Published October 1, 2021 (717 words)

Congress urgently needs to raise or suspend the federal debt limit. Even so, I worry that our legislators will dither and delay. They may hope for executive action, for example, believing that President Biden could instruct the U.S. Treasury to mint a trillion-dollar coin and deposit it at the Federal Reserve. Or that the president could instruct the Treasury to ignore the debt limit, arguing that it is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. However, doing either would violate our constitutional separation of powers: Article I gives Congress the purse strings, and the credit card. Were the president to take these powers, he would make himself a king.

These supposed alternatives spring from a shallow legalism: reading snippets of the law in a way that suits one’s purposes, without regard for the broader whole. The platinum trillion-dollar coin sleight-of-hand is supposedly authorized by a law permitting the Treasury to mint commemorative coins. The 14th Amendment maneuver is supposedly authorized by Section 4, which affirms the validity of the North’s Civil War debt. The section explicitly states that the “validity of the public debt… shall not be questioned,” but it does not grant the president any additional powers. Neither does it curtail the powers of Congress.

Let’s leave the legal minutiae to the lawyers. You don’t need a law degree to see how gimmicks like these contravene a fundamental constitutional principle: The people’s representatives in Congress hold the power of the purse, not the president. This higher ideal of republican government was, in part, enshrined by the Constitution’s Borrowing Clause (Article I Section 8, Clause 2): “Congress shall have power… to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”

The executive branch can borrow money only with congressional authorization. The debt limit defines that authorization and its limits. Congress created the limit during the world wars to facilitate (yet constrain) wartime borrowing. For the president to dodge the debt limit with a clever stratagem would be an expropriation of Congress’ constitutional powers.

Whatever the debt limit’s current role in partisan brinksmanship, it is a problem for Congress itself to solve. Since May, I’ve been publicly advocating one solution: marry a permanent suspension of the ceiling with long-term budget fixes and economic reforms. Any fix from Congress will require the hard work and compromise of our legislators, as our Founders intended.

Yet on this issue and others, a segment of the American people decries the dysfunction of Congress. They demand that the president exercise unconstitutional power for the nation’s greater good. Dissatisfied with the laws and norms of a constitutional republic, they cry out for a king. Addressing Parliament on Dec. 5, 1782, at the conclusion of the war, King George III prayed “that America may be free of those calamities, which have formerly proved in the mother country how essential monarchy is to the enjoyment of constitutional liberty.” (A similar quote is apocryphally attributed to the king in his first meeting with then-Ambassador John Adams: “I pray, Mr. Adams, that the United States does not suffer unduly from its want of a monarchy.”)

Some of the Founders shared the king’s sentiment. In the view of men like Adams and Alexander Hamilton, their revolution was against the “corrupt multitude” in Parliament, not George III. They believed a strong, independent executive was necessary to tamp down on “faction” and protect the people.

Other Founders vehemently disagreed, Thomas Jefferson foremost among them. The primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson describes the king as having established an “absolute tyranny” over the colonies. The king’s domestic independence had been destroyed by the English civil war in the prior century—a conflict partially spurred by King Charles I using “forced loans” in wartime without Parliament’s consent. Conflict turned to bloodshed, and he was executed. This history weighed on the Founders (born Englishmen) during the Constitutional Convention.

Our Constitution is their experiment in self-government. It represents a considered compromise of these different philosophies. Whether it is Congress defaulting on the nation’s obligations, or the president bypassing the separation of powers in a last-ditch effort, either event would be a dark mark on our nation’s history. Unless Congress is able to overcome faction and fix the debt limit, we will have shown ourselves in want of a monarchy, after all. Congress must act now.