That stance, however, ignores other important legal realities: the executive is generally required to spend money appropriated by Congress. Otherwise, the executive would gather for itself the power of the purse.
The administration does have a limited amount of time (more or less 45 days) to defer or rescind appropriations. But Congress eventually has to approve the executive decision or the administration has to spend the money.
Further complicating the matter (as if It wasn't complex enough already): some argue that it would be illegal for a government agency to engage in spending that would cause the debt ceiling to be breached. If so, government outlays would be limited to the level of cash on hand at the Treasury, subject to day-by-day decisions by the administration.
There could be no clearer sign of the politics of government finance than looking at what happened during the Bush administration.
A senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, declined in 2006 to raise the debt ceiling saying, saying he would not be party to "Washington… shifting the burden of our bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren."
As president, he has railed against the potential failure of Congress to hike the ceiling.
At the same time, the debt ceiling was raised seven times in the Bush administration, with Republicans controlling the House for six of eight years.
During that time, the debt ceiling was hiked from $5.9 trillion to $11.3 trillion, a 91% increase. Under President Obama, the ceiling has been hiked to $16.4 trillion (and counting) for a 45%—or $5.1 trillion—increase in about half the time under President Bush.
Deep inside its report, the CRS offers what may be the best way to think about the arcana of the US government fiscal process.
The CRS suggests that, ultimately, what matters is what the markets think.
After all, what's at stake is the ability of the US government to finance its debt. So when it comes to the issue of what really constitutes a default, for example, what matters is how it affects the government's ability to finance itself and at what price.
The CRS said in its report: "Aside from technical definitions, financial markets' perceptions of what constitutes a default, or a real threat of default, may be more relevant when assessing the potential impacts of not raising the debt limit."
By CNBC's Steve Liesman; Follow him on Twitter: @steveliesman