Is the Debt Limit Constitutional? Biden Aides Are Debating It.

The Moody’s Analytics economist Mark Zandi modeled such a situation this year and found it would create short-term economic damage but long-term gains if courts upheld the constitutional interpretation — by removing the threat of future brinkmanship over the limit.

“The extraordinary uncertainty created by the constitutional crisis leads to a sell-off in financial markets until the Supreme Court rules,” Mr. Zandi wrote in March. Economic growth and job creation would be dampened briefly, he added, “but the economy avoids a recession and quickly rebounds.”

Obama administration officials briefly considered — and quickly discarded — the constitutional theory when Republicans refused to raise the limit in 2011 unless the president agreed to spending cuts. Treasury lawyers never issued a formal opinion on the question, and they have not yet this year, department officials said this week.

But in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 2011, George W. Madison, who was Treasury’s general counsel at the time, suggested that department officials did not subscribe to the theory. He was directly challenging an assertion by the constitutional law professor Laurence H. Tribe, who wrote in an opinion essay in The Times that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner had pushed to embrace the 14th Amendment interpretation, which Mr. Tribe opposed.

“Like every previous secretary of the Treasury who has confronted the question,” Mr. Madison wrote, “Secretary Geithner has always viewed the debt limit as a binding legal constraint that can only be raised by Congress.”

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