This whole business with the debt ceiling is generally discussed as a political issue, but I’ve been wondering about it as a purely legal issue.
Here’s the question. People often say that, if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the US won’t be able to pay its bills and will be forced to default. But as I understand the law (not very well, that is), that doesn’t seem quite right. If Congress does nothing, then, if I’m not mistaken, the law requires two contradictory things:
- The US government will be required to spend the money allocated by Congress.
- The US government will be forbidden to execute the mechanism that allows for this spending.
(Let’s follow the President’s lead and leave the platinum-coin option out of the discussion for now.)
When people say that the US will be forced to default in this situation, they’re assuming that the government will obey law 2 and break law 1. Why couldn’t it be the other way around?
Although the question is inspired by the current controversy, I’m curious about the broader legal question: when the law is self-contradictory, is there a legal principle that governs which one takes precedence, or do people get to pick and choose?
Although of course you’d hope that legislatures would avoid making logically incompatible laws, I’d bet that this question has arisen from time to time, in which case it seems to me that there’d be case law laying out a clear legal guideline. Is there?
I know that when it’s a statute vs. the Constitution, the Constitution wins — “supreme law of the land” and all that. But in this case it’s statute vs. statute. (For the sake of argument, let’s assume that both laws are constitutional. I know there’s a 14th-amendment argument about the constitutionality of the debt ceiling, but let’s ignore that for now.)
There’s a famous theorem in symbolic logic of the form
p ^ !p ==> q,
pronounced “p and not-p together imply q.” It says that, once you’ve established both halves of a contradiction, you can logically infer anything you like. (Apparently this is called the paradox of entailment. I was hoping it’d have a cool Latin name like modus ponens, but no such luck.) Maybe the President should use this principle of logic to say that, if the debt ceiling controversy isn’t resolved, he’s allowed to do anything he wants.