Alas, this is a fair question. Should Obama eventually decide that he concurs with Pelosi and Co., it would prove difficult for anybody to do much about it. The trouble in such a case would be determining who exactly has standing to bring a lawsuit. Individual members of Congress, perhaps? Or the House? Well, no, not if 1997’s Raines v. Byrd is any indication. Individual taxpayers? Bondholders? Again, no, not if 1935’s Perry v. United States is anything to go by. And, given Harry Reid’s stated preference that Obama act without Congress, both a joint resolution and any attempt at impeachment would probably be impossible.
Prior to 1917, it was necessary for Congress to vote to authorize each and every instance of federal borrowing. The Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 changed all that, allowing the Treasury Department greater flexibility and involving Congress only when a statutorily set debt limit was reached. While this changed the way in which borrowing worked, it did not change the structure of America’s government, in which Congress enjoys primary control over all matters legislative and fiscal.
Critics of our current impasse are right when they say that allowing a default would be disastrous. But they are quite wrong when they imply that this serves as a justification for extraordinary measures. To contend that Congress has the power to control the debt ceiling until such time as it uses that power irresponsibly is to contend that Congress does not actually enjoy control over the issue at all.