As lawmakers struggle to resolve the debt crisis, a growing number of observers wonder whether President Obama has one last trump card at his disposal: ignoring the debt ceiling altogether.In case anyone's interested, here's the text of Amendment 14, Section 4:
Top Democrats are reviving an argument — one that has arisen several times — that the White House could invoke the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval.
“Is there anything that prohibits him from doing that?” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the newspaper The Hill. “The answer is no.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has described it as the least bad option if Congress doesn’t act.
The White House, for its part, continues to resist the speculation.
“Only Congress can increase the statutory debt ceiling,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday. “That’s just a reality.”
But many legal scholars are suggesting that Obama could do it.
Jack Balkin, a law professor at Yale, has laid out how this would work. At some point after Tuesday’s deadline, Obama would face the demands of multiple contradicting laws. On the one hand, the government is required to pay out money that has already been appropriated. On the other, it would not be allowed to float new debt to cover its obligations.
So, Balkin notes, Obama “has a constitutional duty to treat at least one of the laws as unconstitutional as applied to the current circumstances.” And the wording of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment suggests that the debt ceiling would have to give way: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned.”
If Obama interpreted that clause to mean that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and authorized the Treasury Department to begin issuing new debt, it’s not clear that anyone could stop him. As Jeffrey Rosen writes in the New Republic, individual members of Congress would not have standing to sue — Congress would need to pass a joint resolution, which is unlikely given Democratic control of the Senate.
It is also unlikely that individual taxpayers or bondholders would have standing.
“The most likely outcome is that the Supreme Court would refuse to hear the case,” Rosen argues. And if a suit did make it through, Rosen adds, even the conservative justices would probably rule in Obama’s favor — at least if they held to their judicial philosophies.
But Obama would still face political blow-back. The decision would probably set off an extensive legal and public-relations battle over the scope of the president’s powers. Democrats and Republicans alike were upset about Obama’s decision to intervene in the armed conflict in Libya without Congress’s consent. An unprecedented constitutional maneuver would allow the opposition to paint a portrait of a president who thinks his authority has no bounds.
Section 4.In context, the meaning of the text is very clear: Union debt is good and must be paid; Confederate debt is no good and cannot be paid. Just an accountant's orders for a mopping-up operation for the post-Civil War era. (I do like that Lincolnesque tyrant's formulation: not "must be paid," or "must be honored," but "shall not be questioned." No questions, dammit, no questions! Just pay!)
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.
What does this have to do with limits placed on the further acquisition of government debt? Obviously, not a thing. I suppose, though, that it should be faintly encouraging that our supervisors are bothering to cast about for any sort of fig leaf at all. Maybe it's just a bit of wry irony on their part. Of course they can do anything they want, anything at all: who's going to stop them? They're doing anything they want to right now, and have been for a long time. Who's stopping them now? How? The whole thing is quite funny, really.
Another bit of humor can be seen in the Post's concern that the Peace Laureate might be painted by his "opposition" as a president who thinks his authority has no bounds. Folks, we have a president who already openly asserts his authority to have American citizens assassinated, anywhere in the world, without the smallest trace of due process apart from President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho's say-so ... and so godlike a figure as that is supposed to be concerned about public perception? Don't make me laugh -- at least, don't make me laugh any more than our Idiocracy-esque public life is already making me laugh. It's such a good show. I do declare that, if I laugh any harder, I'll start crying instead.