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Efforts to Evade the Debt Ceiling Require State Intervention

November 14, 2014

Washington’s big spenders are getting more and more untethered from reality. A year ago, they argued that the Fourteenth Amendment somehow empowered the President to ignore the debt ceiling. More recently, they urged the President to mint a new trillion dollar platinum coin—provoking ridicule even by fellow travelers, like comedian Jon Stewart. And now, an article advanced by Economist Neil H. Buchanan and attorney Michael C. Dorf contends that President Obama can disregard the debt ceiling because doing so is the “least unconstitutional” option when forced to choose between violating the ceiling or his duty to execute appropriations.

There’s only one problem with this contention: The last legislative act governs in the event of an unavoidable clash with a prior legislative act. This rule of law means the President is fully empowered by Congress to withhold spending on any appropriation that was enacted before a subsequent debt ceiling is set, as needed to enforce that ceiling. Because there are plenty of appropriations that fall into that category, nothing warrants ignoring the debt ceiling.

Of course, it is doubtful that those who want the President to ignore the debt ceiling are motivated by a cogent legal analysis. Buchanan and Dorf reveal in their article that they don’t want any check on debt other than the ordinary budgeting process. The problem with this perspective is that debt is especially prone to abuse. Politicians are all too happy to engage in debt spending that shifts the cost of current policy choices to future nonvoters. This is why 49 states have some sort of debt limit built into their constitutions, and also why the current federal statutory debt ceiling is better than nothing.

But these kooky debt ceiling evasion theories are likely to keep on coming unless we finally cure Washington’s debt addiction. This will require a constitutional reform that holds the President accountable for enforcing a hard debt limit. But such a reform won’t be proposed by Washington; the states and the people will have to advance the Compact for America instead.

Using an agreement among the states, the Compact for America invokes Article V of the United States Constitution to quickly and safely advance a powerful Balanced Budget Amendment. Bills advancing the Compact for America have already been drafted or introduced in four states, including Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, and New Mexico. Arizona Rep. Adam Kwasman is leading the way by securing passage of HB2328 from the state House Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility Committee last week. And now, legislators in California, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, are ready to pull the trigger. This rapidly growing movement is our best hope for imposing some restraint on our exploding federal debt.

Learn more:

CNN Money: Is the debt ceiling unconstitutional?

CNN: Obama should override the debt ceiling

The Daily Show: The Trillion-Dollar Coin

Compact for America: Official Website

Arizona State Legislature: HB2328

Arizona State Legislature: Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility Committee Hearing (1:41)



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