Mitch McConnell

3 ways to abolish the debt ceiling

September 30, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Why have a debt ceiling? Politicians and policymakers have been asking the same question lately. Here are a few ways we can escape this mess.

Light trails at rush hour in WashingtonFORTUNE -- As the nation braces for a partial government shutdown, lawmakers have another mess to tackle: The debt ceiling, which must be raised by Oct. 17 or the Treasury will run out of borrowing option to pay the federal government's bills.

If this feels like deja vu, that's because it is. Congress failed to come up with a deficit-reduction plan and raise the debt ceiling in 2011, and the nation lost its stellar triple-A credit rating.

Once again, Washington is hobbled by political gridlock. Politicians have gotten in the habit of framing the debt ceiling as a debate over too much government spending when, in fact, the ceiling has nothing to do with future spending. It limits what the government can borrow on financial commitments that have already been made and approved.

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So why have a debt ceiling? More and more politicians and policymakers are asking the same question. Here are three ways the U.S. has tried to get rid of the debt limit.

Invoke the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

President Obama has been waiting for Congress to get its act together, but he may not have to wait on them to raise the debt limit.

In 2011, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed to allow the president to raise the debt ceiling unless Congress voted to stop him. Even if they did, the president could veto such an effort, and it would fall on Congress to overturn his veto.

To do this, the president could invoke a provision of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that the validity of the country's debt "shall not be questioned." The statement, of course, is left to interpretation, but some constitutional experts think it means Congress cannot paralyze the government from borrowing funds to meet financial obligations it has already made.

Former President Bill Clinton suggested the idea back in July 2011, but Obama at the time said that was not a route he would take after consulting with his lawyers.

But, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out, it's a worthy option that could effectively get rid of the debt ceiling. More than that, it could help protect the economy from the catastrophic risks of default.

Mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin

There's another way, though it may only address the issue temporarily: Have the U.S. Treasury print a trillion-dollar platinum coin to pay off debts.

The idea gained traction during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis and the following 2012 fiscal cliff deal. U.S. law allows the Treasury to mint coins of unlimited value. So Secretary Jack Lew could mint whatever is needed and deposit it in the Treasury's account at the U.S. Federal Reserve where it would be booked as an asset.

The Treasury could then pay everyone and avoid default, but this would only be a short-term way to get around the debt ceiling; it's hard to imagine having to call on the Treasury each time the U.S. needs to raise the debt limit.

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What's more, it would require the Fed's backing, since the central bank would be the one to credit the Treasury's deposit. And that's not something the Fed seems to support, at least for now.

Repeal the debt ceiling

Although the Fed may not back the coin idea, Chairman Ben Bernanke has said that he thinks the debt ceiling makes no sense and wishes it didn't exist. He has compared the arbitrary debt limit to a family realizing they spent too much and then not paying their credit card bill.

"That's not the way to get yourself in good financial condition," Bernanke said in January.

The debt ceiling was created in 1939 and was meant to give the government more flexibility to borrow funds, as long as it kept its borrowing below a certain amount. Over the years, however, it has become a political pawn for politicians to extract budgetary concessions.

In January, a group of House Democrats led by Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), introduced a bill that would effectively repeal the 1930s law. The proposal, however, has gone nowhere. That could change, but probably not any time soon, and certainly not with a Republican-controlled House.

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