American Reason: The debt ceiling debate and Presidential overreach

Barack Obama

Pres. Obama at the Feb. 12 State of the Union Address.
Photo by Pete Souza

A couple of weeks ago, had the House not kicked the fiscal can just a little bit further down the road to May, the country would have once again been embroiled in an artificially created crisis over the debt ceiling. The House Republican caucus is demanding that any increase to the debt limit be tied to accompanying deficit reduction plans. Some (such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman) have called this strategy a sort of economic “Hostage Taking.”

Fundamentally, the question is whether or not such potentially dangerous means are an appropriate tool to bring about an admittedly admirable end: a more responsible budget policy for the nation.

Matt Sowada: The president appears to have decided that the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” President Obama has repeatedly insisted that he will not negotiate with Republicans over the debt limit. Congress has the power to raise the debt ceiling as well as the responsibility to approve spending. If they insist on planting their feet on one if the president refuses to negotiate on the other, how can he stop them?

He could try to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. It would be provocative and controversial, but Obama could simply announce that he also has the power to raise the debt limit and pronounce it elevated. What do you think, Vik? Does the president have the power? Should he try to take it?

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Vikram Patel: According to recent precedent, the president probably does have the ability to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. The executive branch decides how to enforce legislation, which means the president effectively has more power in legally unclear situations. We have arrived at the debt-ceiling crisis because Congress has promised a number of people that they are going to pay them a certain amount based on the congressional budget; however, they are also telling the president not to pay those same people by not raising the amount the Treasury can borrow. This contradiction along with the seemingly endless power of signing statements are what most likely give the president the ability to raise the debt ceiling.

All that being said, I don’t think the president should unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Over the past century we have seen the presidency grow ever more powerful to the point where it has been able to (at times) completely ignore the will of Congress. The president unilaterally raising the debt ceiling would mark an impingement into one of Congress’ most cherished powers: the power of the purse.

Unfortunately for us, negotiating with Congress isn’t an option either. Along the lines of the “hostage” theme that you raised, if the president were to give in to Congressional demands for spending cuts then we would end up in this situation any time the Treasury needed to borrow money. It seems that we just have to live with the temporary consequences of electing irresponsible representation and do better next time. Do you see any other way out?

M.S.: No, I don’t, which is why I think that if it ever looks like House Republicans are actually going to go through with any of their threats, Obama should just try to seize the power to raise the debt ceiling. I acknowledge that it would further expand the power of the executive branch, but we’ve already gone so far down that road that we may as well let it benefit us once in awhile. Presidential overreach is a real problem and it needs to be addressed, but at the same time people like us who would like to see a return to a more balanced and stable government ought to pick their battles. I can’t think of a scenario where this or any other president would be able to abuse the power to raise the debt ceiling (as long as Congress also retains the power), can you? If the answer is no, maybe we should let this one go.

V.P.: You are right that the president would not be able to abuse the power to raise the debt ceiling, especially because Congress still has to authorize spending. The growth in executive power is not just a result of presidential overreach but also Congress gradually ceding power for the sake of short-term political expedience. We’ve seen it with the declaration of war, regulation of industries, immigration and other powers all so that members of Congress can avoid voting on issues that might alienate campaign funders or certain vocal constituencies. This has allowed irresponsible representatives to hide just how bad of a job they are doing. In general, the voting public knows Congress is not functioning well but they are unsure as to why. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling then it may result in a failure that is so high profile and transparent that we will see different voting behavior in the next election. If the president steps in, then members of Congress would once again have cover for their irresponsibility. It would also set the precedent that Congress can give up power over finances for short-term political gain.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling would result in a drop in our credit rating. It would mean that Social Security payments and tax refunds would be delayed by a few months. It may even push the US back into a recession. Hopefully though, it would result in changes in long term voting behavior. Besides, if Congress raises the debt ceiling by itself then that would be a sign that they are already behaving more responsibly without intervention by voters.

M.S.: Wow, so you’d be willing to let the country actually default in an attempt to trigger a change in voting behavior. I think that strategy might be counter-productive. What is the change in voting behavior that we’re looking for? With campaign finance laws the way they are, the answer for me is for people to feel social pressure to vote in primaries rather than huge behemoth national elections so we can get some folks running for office that would, as you put it, “behave responsibly.” Now, allowing the country to default would get some number of people to the primaries, but it would get them there in a heightened emotional state. I certainly don’t make the greatest choices when I’m in that state, do you? I want stable, reasonable people selecting the people who might govern us, and I think default will not deliver that electorate to us. All three branches of government should do everything legally possible to prevent it.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at

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