Debt Ceiling and the 14th Amendment

The Debt Ceiling is Unconstitutional

The Debt Ceiling was created with a laudable goal in mind- put some restraint on congressional spending. Spending goes up every year, and the public knows that this is a real problem for our future. Before becoming President, Barack Obama said:

‘The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the US Government can not pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies. Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.’

This makes sense but a Debt Ceiling isn’t constitutional. The 14th Amendment, Section 4, to the Constitution states:

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.

Why was Section 4 of the 14th Amendment added? This amendment was added in 1868, and this specific provision was designed to ensure that the South would pay the bills from the war. The US government had a lot of debt from the Civil War and this amendment was added to make sure that the southern states shared in the repayment of such debts. The fear was that the southern states would attempt to challenge such US debts. Aside from the Civil War debt issue, another purpose was to simply create faith in the US as a debtor. The US can borrow money and creditors feel better about the likelihood of repayment based on this amendment that debts will not be questioned.

What does this mean? It means “The validity of the public debt… shall not be questioned.” The US will pay what it owes and congress can’t challenge these debts. However, that is exactly what Congress is doing by imposing a “Debt Ceiling”. Congress passed the laws that created the debt. So, it must now pay the bill. If Congress doesn’t like the level of spending, then the laws must be changed. However, Congress can’t simply refuse to pay it.

What about the President, can he ignore the Debt Ceiling since it is unconstitutional? NO. The President can’t declare or decide that laws are unconstitutional, only the US Supreme Court can do that. However, believe it or not, some “experts” have advised the President to do just that- ignore the law. That would be a clear abuse of the separation of powers.

How do we fix this? The Debt Ceiling has become a political tool for our parties. However, it is far too dangerous to be used that way. The Debt Ceiling legislation should be amended or repealed or challenged on constitutional grounds. Instead, Congress can pass laws and budgets based on spending limits on the front end.