New Book: The Debt Ceiling Disasters

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Earlier this week, Carolina Academic Press published my new book: The Debt Ceiling Disasters How the Republicans Created an Unnecessary Constitutional Crisis and How the Democrats Can Fight Back.  It is being published exclusively as an e-book, and it is currently available through Amazon in the Kindle format.  We anticipate that it will be available through Apple and GooglePlay soon.

The official publication date was Monday, September 9, which we chose because that was the date on which Congress returned from recess, supposedly to work on legislation to keep the government running past the end of the fiscal year on September 30, and also supposedly to deal with the debt ceiling.  Remember that the government officially hit the debt ceiling on May 19, the moment when the debt ceiling was revived after its Republican-inspired hibernation, which means that we have been operating under "extraordinary measures" for months.

Here are the short and long promotional blurbs from Carolina Academic Press:

Short version:
Since 2011, the United States has faced repeated threats of a federal default, as the radical new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has tried to prevent the President from borrowing enough money to pay for the spending that Congress itself has approved. In this book, Neil H. Buchanan explains why the debt ceiling law is unconstitutional (for two independent reasons), and how the President can and cannot respond, if Republicans refuse to govern responsibly and raise the ceiling when necessary. Professor Buchanan’s accessible and lively analysis debunks the myths about the debt ceiling that Democrats and Republicans alike have come to believe, showing that, for both legal and economic reasons, the debt ceiling cannot be used to extort political concessions from a President.
Longer version:
In 2011, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives embarked on a radical and dangerous path, threatening to refuse to increase the limit on federal debt.  This new Republican strategy threatened to bring about the first federal default in the history of the United States – a default that would be caused not by economic necessity, but by political opportunism.

Because no one had ever threatened to force the federal government to default on its obligations, politicians and scholars found themselves in uncharted territory.  Most commentary was superficial and ad hoc, failing to take seriously the profound legal and economic questions that the Republican strategy raised.  Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and a tax law scholar, emerged as the only expert analyst who systematically engaged in depth with all of the issues surrounding the debt ceiling.

This book brings together Professor Buchanan’s accessible and lively analysis of the debt ceiling disasters as they have unfolded since 2011.  He also provides an overview of where we now stand.  He explains why the debt ceiling forces the President to choose between nothing but illegal and unconstitutional options.  He shows that the President must obey the spending and taxing laws rather than the debt ceiling law, that novel strategies such minting platinum coins are both illegal and dangerous, and that the only way to stop the debt ceiling disasters from continuing into the future is for the President to take a constitutional stand today.
The book collects all of my non-law review writing for the past two years regarding the debt ceiling, including all of the discussions about the various constitutional matters, the supposed work-arounds (the Big Coin gambit, and so on), and the various political crises that have erupted since the House was taken over by the current crop of Republican radicals.  It all adds up to 44 chapters (organized into chronological sections, keyed to the successive political crises that prompted each new outpouring of analysis).  There are also new first and last chapters, which I wrote a few weeks ago as the book went to press, and as the next debt ceiling crisis loomed.

What made the book interesting and worth publishing, from my standpoint (and, I hope, for readers as well) is that it puts all of my writing in one place, in the order in which I wrote it.  Beyond the convenience factor, this also allowed me to see how the issues have evolved over time.  The starting salvos were focused on the Fourteenth Amendment, but after only a few weeks, the discussion had progressed to the separation of powers issue underlying "the trilemma."  (Professor Dorf's label for the underlying problem is still perfect.)  Sorting out the constitutional issues was followed by successive waves of analyses of various solutions.  Discussions then proceeded as the country lurched toward the misnamed "fiscal cliff," sequestration, and so on.

I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by how accurate my various predictions have turned out to be.  As one of my former research assistants put it, when she was going back to see which of my writings should be included in the book: "I don't want to exclude anything, because you've been right about so much.  At some points, looking back on it now, you seemed damned prophetic."  (OK, I know what you're thinking, and you can consider the source and take it with a grain of salt.  I will only mention that she had already landed a full time job when she said this.)

My other reaction to putting together the book was surprise in seeing how much I had written, and how the various pieces have covered virtually every aspect of the budget debates of what we might call "the debt ceiling era."  I have commented at various times (for example, in the previously unpublished first chapter of the book) that the strange thing about the scholarly debate regarding the debt ceiling is that it has been entirely one-sided.  Mike and I wrote our three articles for Columbia Law Review, and our detractors made off-the-cuff comments to reporters.

Similarly, in popular writing, I appear to be the only analyst who regularly and exhaustively engaged with all of the issues.  That is not as self-promoting as it might sound, because I am not saying that I did anything better than anyone else.  There just is not another body of work out there on this issue, other than what is published in this book.  Call it perseverance, or obsessiveness, or whatever you like.  Other than Professor Dorf, who (in addition to our scholarly co-authorship) weighed in from time to time on various aspects of the debate, no other commentator has covered the soup-to-nuts range of issues of the debt ceiling debate.  Readers will decide whether I did that well or poorly.  I must say that it has been fascinating.