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The Platinum Coin Would Be Legal

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Krugaman argues that the Obama administration needs to be ready to use the platinum coin. Drum argues that this would be illegal. Lizardbreath correctly notes that Drum is wrong:

First, of course, he’s perfectly right that the platinum coin option is ridiculous and isn’t going to happen, much as I wish it would. But if it were attempted, I don’t think a court would stop it, and I’m sure that a court that did stop it would be acting unusually and for politically motivated reasons. Courts are expected to do what legislatures say, not what they mean: “legislative intent” can only be considered where there’s an ambiguity in the law. Even if what the legislature said is obviously not what they meant, courts are still expected to follow the letter of the statute. And the platinum coin statute isn’t ambiguous (unless there’s something in the wording I’m missing): the treasury can mint platinum coins, and they’re real money.

Right. Some things are true even though Antonin Scalia believes them, and “we’re bound by the language of statutes legislatures enact, not by what legislators subjectively intended” is one of those things. Legislative purpose and intent should of course be taken into account when resolving statutory ambiguities, but here there aren’t any ambiguities.

If one wants to argue that what matters is not just plain statutory meaning but norms, again I think this would favor the minting of the platinum coin. After all, it’s also a norm that Congress not use the debt limit to try to get policy concessions. And if Congress were to go through with the blackmail, the president would have to violate the law either way (on one hand, violating the debt limit; on the other hand, violating the 14th Amendment and the previous statutes ordering the president to spend appropriated money.) The platinum coin option is both entirely consistent with the law and would be the best political resolution of an impossible situation. Permitting this blackmail to be a permanent feature of the American political system would be the worst option of all.

UPDATE: See also Eric Posner.

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