So you might or might not be aware about the debt ceiling argument currently taking place in the US.

I’ve already written about this, but President Biden for some reason didn’t listen to me (perhaps because he doesn’t read my blog – which is disappointing). Other, more famous people have written about it too,, but the President insists on pretending he has to make a deal with the Republicans.

So, to catch everyone up, here’s how this all works.

Congress passes a budget every year. This budget requires the President (and the bureaucracy he presides over) to spend money on various programs. Not “allows,” to be clear, but requires – in the vast majority of situations, the President does not have the discretion to not spend the money. The spending is required by law.

The President (or specifically, the Treasury Department) is also required to pay the US debt as it comes due. This is also required by law, and specifically, this obligation is enshrined constitutionally in the 14th amendment, section 4, which was added to the US Constitution shortly after our Civil War.

That money to do these things typically will come from two places: taxes, and debt auctions. The IRS can only collect so many taxes. But the treasury can do debt auctions without any practical limitations.

However, we are now in a situation where the treasury is hitting a boundary where they supposedly cannot do debt auctions anymore, because there is also a law that purports to limit the total outstanding amount of debt the US has: the debt ceiling.

Now, I’m tempted to clarify that government debt is not like household debt, that it’s not really very much like a debt at all. There is no reason economically to have a debt ceiling. Too much government spending or not enough taxes can in some situations cause inflation, but it’s more complicated than any measure of how much debt there is.

But that’s actually beside the point here, because we can get to the same conclusion without it, which is that the laws as they stand force the administration into a contradictory position. The President – or rather, the Treasury – has legal obligation to spend money on the budget and on paying the debt. The Treasury cannot collect more in taxes than it currently is, not without changing the laws. So it has a legal obligation to issue more debt to pay the current debt, from the budget and constitution. And from the debt ceiling, it has a legal obligation not to issue more debt.

The Treasury legally must issue more debt. The Treasury legally must not issue more debt. The two laws contradict. Which wins?

Well, if there is any legal option to make the contradiction go away, the Treasury is bound to try them. These take the form of issuing debt that, for whatever reason, doesn’t count toward the debt ceiling. For example, the Treasury could mint a $1,000,000,000,000 platinum coin. Coins are technically a form of debt, owed by the US Treasury to whoever holds the coin, but (in what is apparently an oversight) they do not count towards the debt ceiling. It’s an absurd loophole, but legally, the situation the Treasury is in otherwise is as absurd.

Or, less meme-like but equally useful, they could issue $0 face value bonds, which again would not count toward the debt ceiling.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Treasury could consider doing these things. I’m saying that the Treasury must do these things if the alternative is default, that it is legally and even constitutionally obligated to. I’m saying that if President Biden doesn’t choose one of those things, he is in violation of his oath of office, and not doing his job.

President Biden, however, and his treasury secretary, have ruled out doing those things. One hopes that they are lying rather than planning on betraying their country and its Constitution. They say that there is not time (this seems false), or specifically time to get it past the courts – which is not how I think courts work. How courts work is you do it, and then maybe courts yell at you. But given that President Biden is obligated to do one of these things, it seems pretty clear to me that doing it is better than not doing it.

The Biden administration argues that these things are unprecedented. But: You know what else is unprecedented, but actually clearly illegal? Default. It seems that President Biden would prefer if some deal is reached, but if a deal is not, he should be willing to do the legal unprecedented thing instead of the illegal unprecedented thing.

But let’s imagine he’s right. Imagine that these special debts for some reason were off the table. Then we’re back to the contradiction. The Treasury is obligated (by the budget and by the constitution) to create more debt, and forbidden (by the debt ceiling) to create more debt.

Certainly, the Constitution trumps the debt ceiling, at least to the extent that government spending is to pay existing debt. Perhaps it is only lawful to do so for that reason, and not to pay normal budgetary outlays, and we should do a normal government shut-down. That is what the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argues.

But given that the budget is not generally seen to be discretionary, and the debt ceiling will be violated either way, this doesn’t hold water for me. Once you’re past the debt ceiling, in my mind, you’re past it. Once the debt ceiling gets in the way of the treasury paying existing debt, I think it’s entirely blasted away as unconstitutional. But even as a matter of statutory interpretation, the budget was passed more recently than the debt ceiling, is more specific, and doesn’t contain an exception accommodating it.

This is the argument the President and media refer to as “invoking the 14th amendment.” They all talk about it, again, as if it’s something the President may do, rather than what the President must do, what he is legally and morally obligated to do as part of the President’s Constitutional duties to the American people, under his oath of office.

Instead, for whatever reason, the President and the media are all talking as if the only way to avoid default is with a deal. They’re talking as if the debt ceiling actually did what the Republicans claim it does, that it causes a default when the ceiling is reached.

In my mind, this is already a violation of the President’s oath of office. This is a concession to the powerful forces, like the former President Donald Trump, that would like nothing more than to see our constitutional order destroyed, who tried to destroy it only a few short years ago. President Trump has said that he wants default, an unconstitutional outcome, and by conceding that it is even legally possible for that to happen, President Biden has failed to defend the constitution against that manifest insurrectionist.

And the media who talk about the 14th amendment as an unprecedented option, as if it is more tenuous than default, which is also unprecedented, are also abetting enemies of the constitution, hopefully merely out of confusion.

I respect Ezra Klein, but I disagree with his article. The Supreme Court may do what it wants, and they might be majority Republican appointees, but they’re not majority Trumpers.

But more importantly, default is even less of a debt ceiling plan. If no deal is reached, President Biden has no alternative. The Supreme Court may later decide to ruin the country, but that doesn’t mean the President can’t run it correctly in the meantime.

Just because it’s called “default” doesn’t mean we’re allowed to do it if the other options are bad, by default. It doesn’t mean that at all.

Of course, this might all be a negotiating stance. What all these people might actually be saying is that a deal with Republicans is better than a situation where one of these “untested” option is used. I hope – I really truly hope – that they are more or less lying, that if it comes to it, they’ll be in favor of minting the coin or ignoring the debt ceiling rather than actually letting a default happen. But it upsets me, disgusts me, that we’re making a deal with people who do not care about fiscal policy on the basis of fear of an outcome that is legally impermissible because of the threat of an unconstitutional law.

But if so, President Biden should not lie. If the Treasury is secretly studying other options, they should instead do it openly. He should have started all of this by asking for a law clarifying the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and being repealed, but shrug his shoulders if he doesn’t get one. The opposition in this case does not deserve the respect they are currently being given, led by their pro-default insurrectionist-in-chief, for whom the debt ceiling was raised three times.

And if you believe, genuinely, that the US needs to have a conversation about fiscal policy, the time to have that conversation is when passing the budget, not randomly according to an unconstitutional debt ceiling.