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[Originally published in Eclectifying]

I have pointed out that the nation is on the horns of a trilemma about the upcoming debt ceiling vote.

Henry Aaron points out that this puts Obama himself on the horns of a separate dilemma (a more ordinary beast, but still uncomfortable). In brief, his argument is this: The Constitution requires the president to (1) spend what Congress tells him to spend; (2) tax only what Congress tells him to tax; and (3) borrow only what Congress tells him to borrow.

And so, should the Congress not raise the debt limit, he actually only has a choice of poisons. The standard line is that since he can’t borrow, he has no money to spend. That is, he can’t borrow unless he’s allowed to. But this puts him in direct breach of the first requirement — that he spend what he’s been told to spend.

In other words, no course of action keeps him constitutionally clean. He can be challenged for not spending just as easily for not borrowing. So he should pick the course that does the least harm.

In view of the clause of the 14th Amendment that holds the full faith and credit of the United States to be inviolable, I think that argument is doubly justified. If under-spending and over-borrowing are both equally problematic, the 14th Amendment puts weight on the side of over-borrowing.

None of this makes an difference to the fact that this is just plain stupid. The debt limit law is broken from the start. Once Congress decides what to spend and what to tax, how much to borrow is just a calculation, not a choice. It’s an archaic and apparently (in practice) anarchic bit of tripe that should be excised from the body politic with extreme prejudice.

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