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NAGE seeks emergency order to stop debt-limit enforcement

Federal-employee union taking a novel legal approach through a lawsuit attempting to protect its members from fallout due to the debt ceiling crisis.

Federal employees are understandably worried about their jobs, salaries and benefits in light of a potentially imminent failure to increase the debt limit of the federal government, currently set at $31.4 billion. Stress in the federal workplace is high, and one federal-worker union is trying to do something about it through a suit on behalf of its 75,000 members.

Federal-employee union’s lawsuit

On May 8, 2023, the National Association of Government Employees, Inc., (NAGE) lodged its complaint against President Joe Biden and Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen in Massachusetts federal court, alleging that the federal Debt Limit Statute is unconstitutional. On that basis, the plaintiff union is asking the court to declare the statute “of no force” and to issue an injunction ordering the president and secretary to continue borrowing money to meet the spending obligations already enacted in Congress.

Request for emergency court order

Then, on May 19, 2023, the union filed an emergency motion for preliminary injunction asking the court to suspend the Debt Limit Statute during the case and until Congress amends it to comply with the Constitution. The union argues that the law violates the constitutional requirement that the three branches of government remain separate as well as the Presentment Clause, which lays out the process Congress must use to pass laws and present them to the president.

Specifically, NAGE asserts that for the president to comply with the debt limit, he would have to make decisions about spending cuts to allotments that Congress already enacted. This, the union argues, would be the equivalent of a line-item veto, a device the U.S. Supreme Court has already declared unconstitutional. Also, spending decisions are the province of Congress, not of the executive branch, so to comply with the Debt Limit Statute, the president and treasury secretary would face impossible choices among options arguably unconstitutional or illegal under current law.

Federal employee injuries

NAGE points out that its federal-employee members have already suffered injury through lost financial interests because to avoid hitting the debt limit, Secretary Yellen recently suspended investments from the assets of various federal-worker retirement and savings plans. The union also anticipates paycheck interruption and potential furloughs.

Uncertain events

Because of Secretary Yellen’s prediction that the country would default on its debts on June 1, Judge Richard Stearns had scheduled a May 31 hearing on the injunction request, but on May 29, he granted a government request to postpone the May 31 hearing. According to the case’s docket entry on Westlaw, he did so in “deference to the efforts of the executive and legislative branches to resolve the current impasse over the debt ceiling statute …”

In addition, Secretary Yellen had extended her prediction that the debt default date would be June 1 to June 5. The impact of this and of a purportedly tentative agreement between the House of Representatives and the Biden Administration on the lawsuit is not known.

Federal-employee advocates will watch this lawsuit and related developments closely.