Debt limit? What debt limit?

As Republicans continue to hold the nation’s economic future hostage in negotiations over whether to increase the debt limit, some Democrats and legal experts are questioning the very constitutionality of the debt limit.

Most nation’s don’t have debt ceilings. The legislative body approves spending and revenue, and by those actions implicitly approves any debt that occurs. But since 1917, the U.S. has had a debt ceiling that must be raised to accommodate accumulated debt. Until now, that hasn’t caused serious problems because responsible members of Congress knew that the full faith and credit of the United States must never be jeopardized by failing to raise the limit.

Until now, when irresponsible members of Congress hold a majority in the House of Representatives.

Understand this: This debate is not over whether the limit ought to be raised. Even the most radical and austere budget plans introduced by Republicans in Congress call for raising the debt limit by trillions of dollars over the next decade. There is no feasible way for the United States to meet its current obligations and continue the ongoing functions of government without raising the limit. Congressional Republicans know this. But they also know that this must-pass legislation gives them tremendous leverage to get their way if they are willing to risk the global economic firestorm they know will result if their bluff is called. As congressional candidate Andy Schmookler put it, the Republican position is this: “Meet our demands or we’ll hurt America.”

But what if the debt limit itself is unconstitutional? What if President Obama said, “You know what? Congress approved this spending. Congress approved tax cuts and wars that weren’t paid for. Thousands of binding, legal acts of Congress resulted in this amassed debt, and this Congress cannot, having approved further spending and extension of tax cuts that guarantee trillions of dollars more debt, tell the executive branch that it cannot borrow to pay America’s obligations. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, ‘The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law… shall not be questioned.’ Therefore, the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and unenforceable. My administration will do what is right for the nation and the global economy. We will continue to fund the government programs approved by Congress – and pay past obligations – and we will continue to borrow to make up the difference between that and the level of revenue approved by Congress. The debt ceiling is hereby declared null and void.”

That probably won’t happen. But if Republicans continue to refuse to raise the debt limit unless Obama meets their one-sided demands, perhaps it should.

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