Fourteenth Amendment Redux

9 July 2011

Back in May of 2010, I posted an entry about the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and the national debt. I'm not sure that readers found that entry particularly interesting at the time, but it gets an ever-increasing number of hits, as the United States approaches default, and as parts of the political left have begun drawing attention to the Amendment. More specifically, parts of the political left have claimed that the Amendment actively requires Congress to increase the debt ceiling, and other parts have claimed that the Amendment empowers the President to increase the debt limit without consent of Congress. It's that latter claim that I will now examine.

Let's return to the actual language of section 4:

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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

(Underscores mine.) Now, an important phrase here is authorized by law; the question is of how a debt as such comes to be authorized by law.

The Constitution itself is law, superior to any-and-all further legislation. It is the Constitution that creätes the Presidency. Before and after the Fourteenth Amendment, the Constitution does not invest any law-making authority in the Presidency beyond what can be said to exist in ability to negotiate treaties with foreign powers (and these treaties must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate), and Congress has not delegated to the Presidency the authority to increase the debt ceiling.

So the question truly is of whether and when the Fourteenth Amendment might, as parts of the political left claim, be itself exactly the law that empowers the President to increase the ceiling. And the answer is that it is indeed that law — where the only way not otherwise in violation of the Constitution to pay debt that has come due is to borrow beyond the existing limit. If the debt can be paid in some other way, then no special authority can be found for the President in section 4.

And there is the rub. The President doesn't get to say that he or she must raise the limit to continue funding institutions to which he or she can apply profound and moving terms, unless those institutions are indeed Constitutionally mandated. The political left will find none of its distinguishing programmes amongst these institutions. (And, should they bother to read what's actually there, the political right would find that many things that it regards as essential are not actually required by the Constitution.)

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