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What is the federal government’s “obligation” under its debt limit?

June 5, 2017

The U.S. federal government has established, by law, a limit on the debt that it issues. But the federal government has raised that limit, by law, 15 times in the last 16 years.

The debt limit will be in the news again in coming weeks, as pressures are intensifying for another increase in the limit, to accommodate government spending (and borrowing) that it theoretically constrains.

In late 2015, D. Andrew Austin wrote a research article for the Congressional Research Service titled “The Debt Limit:  History and Recent Increases.”  In the introduction, he stated that “The growth in federal debt held by the public and in intergovernmental accounts, such as trust funds, has periodically obliged Congress to raise the debt limit.”

“Obliged.”  The growth in debt has “obliged” Congress to raise its limit on debt.

Don’t laws imply obligations?  Doesn’t a legal debt limit oblige Congress (and the President) to observe the limit?

Maybe not, if Congress (and the President) make the law, and can change it when they see fit.

Here are the first two meanings in the definition for the verb “oblige” at www.dictionary.com

  1. "to require or constrain, as by law, command, conscience, or force of necessity."
  2. "to bind morally or legally, as by a promise or contract."

The first meaning alone provides some tension.  “Law, command, conscience, or force of necessity” all have different sources of authority.

In turn, the second meaning also includes alternative interpretations within a single meaning -- to bind “morally” or “legally,” which can be two different things.

Sometimes, “legally” may not be all that “morally,” when it comes to things like the debt limit.

 

 
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