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The federal debt limit: another government accounting falsehood

May 23, 2017

When is a ceiling not a ceiling?  When it is really a floor.

The US Constitution gives Congress the power to “borrow money.” Our government has borrowed oodles of it, all the while issuing (and advertising) theoretical limits on the ability to do so.

The federal debt limit provides a source of discipline, or so we are told.  In practice, it provides a means of propaganda and deception that undermines any “rule of law” we think we have.  Four main reasons include:

Most federal debt is not included:  The federal government’s massive unfunded obligations in Social Security and Medicare total roughly four times as much as the debt subject to the limit, and are not included in that limit. 

Extraordinary measures mask true debt accumulation:  In March 2017, while bumping into its limit, the federal government entered a “debt issuance suspension period.”  Debt subject to the debt limit has since remained pretty much unchanged, at least as reported, in large part because the government allows itself to effectively postpone funding for employee retirement benefits. This allows real debt to rise, even as the reported “debt to the penny” remains unchanged.

It isn’t a limit:  Whenever push really comes to shove, Congress and the President raise the limit.  They have raised it 15 times in the 16 years since 2001. 

National emergency powers:  The Constitution gives Congress the power to borrow money.  And Congress has set limits on that borrowing, by federal law.  Over time, however, our political system (including the judicial branch) has recognized overlapping authority for the President to declare national emergencies in a time of crisis.  In the 2013 debt ceiling “crisis,” some were urging President Obama to issue such a declaration, and to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally by executive order.

This last qualification may become quite interesting in coming months, given our new resident in the White House.  For an excellent review of the history and implications of the constitutional law issues in this fascinating area, see this Congressional Research Service report by Harold Relyea.

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