If Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling, the president should use his powers
President Obama can make a better argument. Congress has given him an impossible task: to implement a large number of costly public projects with less money than those projects cost. If he cuts spending, then he violates constitutional norms that give Congress the power to determine spending. If he raises revenues by borrowing or trying to tax people, then he violates constitutionals norms that give Congress the power to borrow or tax. In the face of contradictory instructions from Congress, the president can’t avoid choosing—by virtue of his administrative role as collector and disburser of revenues, the president must do something. Where Congress fails to provide him with consistent instructions, he has the discretion to do what he believes is in the public interest. If the economy were to be on the point of collapse, he could cite emergency powers sanctified by tradition as his authority for borrowing beyond the debt ceiling on his own. But a less drastic argument is that the power to resolve conflicting congressional orders is inherent in the president’s administrative role. Indeed, presidents frequently face conflicting statutes as they govern, and they have long enjoyed a great deal of discretion in resolving them.
So in the face of contradictory orders from Congress, President Obama should do what he believes is in the public interest. And if the House refuses to raise the debt ceiling, this surely means some combination of cutting spending, borrowing beyond the debt limit, and perhaps even searching out new sources of revenue.