I keep hesitating to write about this because it sounds insane, but Jack Balkin’s a professor at Yale Law School so I’ll let him say it:
Sovereign governments such as the United States can print new money. However, there’s a statutory limit to the amount of paper currency that can be in circulation at any one time. Ironically, there’s no similar limit on the amount of coinage. A little-known statute gives the secretary of the Treasury the authority to issue platinum coins in any denomination. So some commentators have suggested that the Treasury create two $1 trillion coins, deposit them in its account in the Federal Reserve and write checks on the proceeds.
It’s right here in 31 USC § 5112 “Denominations, specifications, and design of coins.” It’s super-prescriptive about all kinds of things until you get to section (k):
(k) The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.
It actually seems to me that there’s a colorable argument that President Obama is legally obliged to order Secretary Geithner to order the mint to start creating large denomination platinum coins. The debt ceiling is legally binding. We can’t borrow any more money. But at the same time, the Social Security Act is still valid. There are appropriations bills that extend through September. The assumption is that starting August 2, the Treasury will start “prioritizing” payments. But whence the legal authority to do that. By contrast, the legal authority to mint platinum coins is right there in the statute. This would, I assume, lead to a downgrading of American sovereign debt.