The 14th Amendment and The Debt Ceiling

For a number of weeks, the media has been reporting that there are some people that advocate President Obama bypassing Congress and ignoring the Debt Ceiling under the guise of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. More recently, former President Clinton threw out his two cents and said that if it were him, he would just ignore it and direct the Treasury to continue borrowing money as necessary to pay our expenses. Not to pick on President Clinton, but it’s really not a surprise that he feels that the law doesn’t apply to his former office, especially considering that while he held that office, he committed perjury and was brought up on Articles of Impeachment.

That said, I felt compelled to examine the argument being made. I know the Constitution fairly well, but will also concede that I’m not an attorney or Constitutional scholar, so I did a little digging to see if the related provisions would support this claim. There are a number of components that will play into the discussion as to whether or not the President can legally ignore the Debt Limit. You have the 14th Amendment, Articles 1 & 2 of the Constitution, and the Debt Ceiling law.

First, let’s look at the 14th Amendment (section 4), which reads:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

United States Constitution
United States Constitution

That’s a fairly general statement. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 and included section 4 to alleviate concerns in a post-Civil War United States about the integrity of the Government’s debt. In short, people weren’t sure they were going to get paid back for the bonds they purchased, which financed the war. This Amendment was enacted to make bondholders comfortable that their investment was sound.

How does this affect the previous argument? Well, it really doesn’t. The 14th Amendment can be interpreted very narrowly by saying that it means that “the validity of the public debt” shall not be questioned, but that it doesn’t go as far as to guarantee payment. It could also be interpreted broadly by inferring that it does guarantee payment, which puts the responsibility on the Government to ensure that it is paid. Either way, it in no way shape or form, authorizes the President to do anything.

This is where Articles 1 & 2 come into play. Since the 14th Amendment grants no specific authorizations to any branch of the Government, we have to go back and look at where those authorizations are granted. Article 1 deals with the Legislative Branch and Section 8 defines the powers of Congress:

Section 8 – Powers of Congress

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow money on the credit of the United States;

This is an expansion of Section 7:

Section 7 – Revenue Bills, Legislative Process, Presidential Veto

All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

These two provisions under Article 1 clearly show that the Congress is the only Branch of Government that is authorized to raise revenue. If you read Aritcle 2, which deals with the Executive Branch, you will find that there is nothing that grants the President the power to raise money in any way, shape or form. Our Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, which specifically prohibits the Government from doing anything that is not enumerated in the document.

The Debt Ceiling law is only relative to this discussion if the claims that it is unconstitutional were to be true. I don’t believe that there are any grounds to make that determination, but even if there were, the law has not been challenged, nor have there been any rulings so as it stands, the law is valid.

The fact that the Constitution specifically grants the powers to raise revenue to the Congress and not to the President shows clearly that the 14th Amendment argument is invalid. If the President were to bypass Congress, he would do so in direct violation of the Constitution and statutory law.


+Kevin A. Nye

Featured image credit: AK Rockefeller

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