"The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, . . . shall not be questioned."
- United States Constitution, 14th Amendment, Section 4.
A very long time ago, the United States had a debt problem. You see, it owed a boatload of money to the nations that had aided it in shaking off British rule - France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic - and was having trouble paying. The Secretary of the Treasury, a guy named Alexander Hamilton, hit upon an idea.
Embrace the debt, borrow money off that debt and set up a line of credit. In a trice, America had a functioning economy and was on its way to establishing a balance of trade with the rest of the world.
Okay, it's a gross oversimplification, but it gets the damned point across.
After the Civil War, we faced another debt problem. The Confederacy had borrowed money, and had racked up debts with Britain and France. Since these were states in rebellion, we didn't want to have to pay the CSA's debt back.
Hence Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment. The redacted bit in the quote cited above sets that exception in Constitutional stone - the traitors' debts will not be paid, and will not be considered valid. I'm sure it pissed off both London and Paris, but fuck 'em for backing the wrong horse.
So, let's fast forward to today.
We're facing a problem with the debt ceiling now. The US debt ceiling's an artificial line drawn in thin air and on ledgers, and is usually raised without a murmur by the US House of Representatives - which has the power of the purse anyway, so the Executive Branch has historically been quite happy to leave them to it.
During the Bush Administration, the Congress raised the debt limit three damned times, and Devil take the budget deficit. Vice President Cheney is even on record saying that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
So what's the hubbub now?
Two words. Tea. Party.
The Teabagger faction in the GOP has their collective testes resting on John Boehner's forehead right now. If he tries anything he'll face an open revolt in his own caucus as well as a possible coup by Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor. So far, he's managed to stave off this denouement.
The House passed a Teabagger wad of phlegm yesterday that would cut social spending benefits, cap any possible tax increase (because Lord knows the richest 1% all need new Rolls Royces) and force a balanced budget amendment. The bill - passed on party lines, of course - now goes to that beehive of activity, the Senate. Obama's already declared he'll veto it.
So, the Legislative Branch is largely paralyzed by partisan gridlock.
Which leaves the Executive to act.
I forget who suggested it, but the legal precedent for the President to act by fiat and disregard the Congress of the United States was established by the legal lights of the former Administration. That would be the George W Bush Administration, by the way - the one that many conservatives would rather you forgot about.
The concept's known as The Unitary Executive. The door was opened; all Obama has to do is walk through it.
Bill Clinton actually said that he'd urge Obama to do it and let the courts hash it out. It'd be quite simple; a brief Executive Order directing the Treasury to raise the debt limit by such-and-such amount. The markets would breathe a sigh of relief, the rest of the world will be happy, and the Teabaggers will foam at the mouth.