As we wrote yesterday, President Obama has sidestepped questions on whether he might try to do an end run around Congress if it won't agree to raise the debt ceiling. But the Treasury Department is being quite so cagey.
In a letter to the New York Times, posted on the Treasury Department's website, the department's top lawyer appeared to rule out using the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the ceiling by executive order, writing that "the Constitution explicitly places the borrowing authority with Congress, not the President."
In recent weeks, some observers have argued that the section of the Constitution that states "[t]he validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned" empowers the president to act without Congress.
Congress and the White House are currently locked in negotiations over raising the ceiling, with Republicans insisting on massive spending cuts and no tax hikes in exchange. If the debt limit isn't raised by early August, the U.S. would likely default on its debts to foreign creditors, something that could have disastrous consequences for the national and global economy.
George Madison, the Treasury Department's general counsel, wrote to the Times:
Contrary to Professor Laurence Tribe's assertion (Op-Ed, July 8), Secretary Geithner has never argued that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the President to disregard the statutory debt limit. As Professor Tribe notes, the Constitution explicitly places the borrowing authority with Congress, not the President.
The Secretary has cited the 14th Amendment's command that "[t]he validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned" in support of his strong conviction that Congress has an obligation to ensure we are able to honor the obligations of the United States. Like every previous Secretary of the Treasury who has confronted the question, Secretary Geithner has always viewed the debt limit as a binding legal constraint that can only be raised by Congress.
That means if Congress doesn't act, we could be headed for a default.