Is the Debt Ceiling Legal?

Treasury Secretary Geithner warns that if Congress doesn’t act to raise the federal debt ceiling, it would be “unthinkably damaging to the economy.” As Ezra Klein reports, the governments options would be grim. The federal government would have to default on some of its obligations and largely shut down by August 2 to remain in compliance with the debt ceiling. Government business would grind to a halt and the U.S. credit rating would suffer, with potentially catastrophic long-term consequences.


But it’s not clear that Congress can constitutionally impose a debt ceiling on the President. The debt limit we have now is the legacy of a 1939 law designed to allow the Treasury flexibility to borrow up to a certain limit. But Geithner and a number of constitutional scholars have questioned whether Congress can prevent the president from paying obligations that the government has already incurred. That’s because a passage in the Fourteenth Amendment—designed to prevent Southern politicians from repudiating Civil War debts—stipulates that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law... shall not be questioned.” What exactly that means is a complicated legal question, but as Jonathan Chait writes, the clause was intended to prevent politicians from using the threat of default for political leverage—which is exactly what Republicans are doing now.

Simply ignoring the debt ceiling isn’t much of a plan, although it might be better than actually allowing the government to default on its obligations. Such a move would trigger a high-stakes constitutional struggle with Congress. Democrats and Republicans would both be taking huge political risk in such a conflict—and the conflict alone might be cause markets to lose faith in the governments financial commitments.

While the law may be unclear, it should remind us what is at stake. In a legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment, Jack Balkin quotes Sen. Benjamin Wade (R-OH), who fought for the debt clause. “Every man who has property in the public funds” Wade said, “will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress.”

Photo credit: Pete Souza

Compelling speakers do these 4 things every single time

The ability to speak clearly, succinctly, and powerfully is easier than you think

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 8, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)
Personal Growth

The ability to communicate effectively can make or break a person's assessment of your intelligence, competence, and authenticity.

Keep reading Show less

This 5-minute neck scan can spot dementia 10 years before it emerges

The results come from a 15-year study that used ultrasound scans to track blood vessels in middle-aged adults starting in 2002.

Mikhail Kalinin via Wikipedia
Mind & Brain
  • The study measured the stiffness of blood vessels in middle-aged patients over time.
  • Stiff blood vessels can lead to the destruction of delicate blood vessels in the brain, which can contribute to cognitive decline.
  • The scans could someday become a widely used tool to identify people at high risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's.
Keep reading Show less

How 'dark horses' flip the script of success and happiness

What defines a dark horse? The all-important decision to pursue fulfillment and excellence.

Big Think Books

When we first set the Dark Horse Project in motion, fulfillment was the last thing on our minds. We were hoping to uncover specific and possibly idiosyncratic study methods, learning techniques, and rehearsal regimes that dark horses used to attain excellence. Our training made us resistant to ambiguous variables that were difficult to quantify, and personal fulfillment seemed downright foggy. But our training also taught us never to ignore the evidence, no matter how much it violated our expectations.

Keep reading Show less