Is the Debt Limit Constitutional?

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.–Fourteenth Amendment (Section 4)

The debt ceiling crisis continues to dominate the news, with some speculation now that White House officials are wondering whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution might require the government to continue to pay its bills whether Congress actually raises the debt ceiling or not.Heather Cox Richardson

Should President Biden ignore the debt ceiling law, The Fourteenth Amendment to The Constitution might well permit it. It would remove the threat of default now and in the future. President Biden surely would prefer that Congress raise the limit or repeal it. However, there is precedent for a president to ignore laws and The Constitution–TFG ignored the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, our highest law, effectively making it moot (he ignored other laws and norms as well). Ignoring the law would provoke howls of outrage from Republicans, while doing them two favors:

  • It would get them off the hook at present.
  • It would spare them from future difficulty if there should be a future Republican Administration.

These are two reasons that President Biden might be loath to act; doubtless there are others.

Ignoring the debt limit law would create a constitutional crisis. The Supreme Court has been reluctant to take sides in disputes between President and Congress. If it did take up the issue, it is hard to see how the Justices could reconcile the debt limit law with The Fourteenth Amendment. If they did find the debt limit constitutional, the only obvious remedy would be impeachment, which would not likely succeed and wouldn’t solve the the problem of the deficit if it did.

Accounting tricks have been suggested for resolving the default crisis, trillion dollar coins for example. These would solve the problem with a lie: keeping the debt ceiling law on the books while the debt grows above it. I don’t think it wise to kid ourselves. “We the people” ought to demand that Congress act.

It is generally said that default is unacceptable. Yet Congress may not be able to do its duty. I suspect the solution will be a short term extension of the debt limit, a common expediency.

About whungerford

* Contributor at where we discuss the politics, economics, and events of the New New York 23rd Congressional District (Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Chemung, (Eastern) Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben,Tioga, Tompkins, and Yates Counties) Please visit and comment on whatever strikes your fancy.
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