Democrats Raise Constitutional Argument In Favor Of Raising Debt Limit

Democratic members have raised a novel argument under the Fourteenth Amendment that the refusal to raise the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. For full disclosure, I was asked about this argument weeks ago by members who believe that forcing the country to default would be not just catastrophic but unconstitutional. I will be discussing this topic today on CNN and tonight on Countdown.

The relevant language of the Fourteenth Amendment states:

The argument goes that Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment declares:

“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.”

The argument goes that, by not lifting the debt limit, Congress is “questioning” “the validity of the public debt of the United States.” Under this logic, advocates are encouraging President Obama to simply pay the debts in accordance with the Constitution. That would be an extreme step that would add a constitutional crisis to an economic crisis.

The “authorized by law” clause could present an interesting debate since the debt ceiling is part of a federal statute — though conversely so is the obligation to pay things like social security.

The language is certainly written in absolute terms but it is not likely that a court would rule that it makes a failure to lift the debt ceiling unconstitutional. Congress can argue that it fully intends to pay its debts, but that there is a political dispute over how and when. They can argue that they were not challenging the “validity” of the debt but the priority in the payment. The United States will still be fully liable for the debt and the interest.

Of course, as with the Libyan War, the Administration could trigger the constitutional fight on the belief that no one will be able to get standing to challenge its payment of the debt.

Jonathan Turley

608 thoughts on “Democrats Raise Constitutional Argument In Favor Of Raising Debt Limit”

  1. Madison as a 21st Century Counselor: From the National Gazette April 2, 1792

    The Union: Who Are Its Real Friends ?
    Not those who favor measures, which by pampering the spirit of speculation within and without government, disgust the best friends of the Union.
    Not those whp promote unnecessary accumulations of the debt of the Union, instead of the best means of discharging it as fast as possible; thereby increasing the causes of corruption in the government, and the pretext for new taxes under its authority, the former undermining the confidence, tha latter alienating the affection of the people.

    Prescient ?

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  5. I will point out, by the way, that Iowa state income tax in the top income bracket (over about 63K) is 9%, so if we adjust their top rate $206K down by 9%, we get $187K, which is only about 7.4% over the average compensation of other states, and even that 7.4% can be accounted for by higher pricing throughout the state due to the state income tax.

    It seems Iowan Physicians have the sensible attitude that they work for their actual take-home buying power, not their gross salary.

  6. @Roco: $400K for a neurosurgeon was a figure I got from a sociologist friend of mine, a few years ago; I believe it. Here is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says:

    For General Practitioner, Family Physician: $174K is the mean national earnings. The average in the top paying state (Iowa) is $206K.

    For Surgeons: $225K is the mean national earnings. The top wage shown is $245K. I do not think $400K for a neurosurgeon is out of line with these wages.

    However, do not lose sight of the larger point: These doctors are working voluntarily, and became doctors voluntarily, and for a job like this (one that requires personal skill, years of training, and extensive labor and education to master) the market does a good job of assigning a value to their effort and expertise.

    I know several MDs for whom money was not their primary motivator; they knew they could earn more, faster, with a business or law degree. Nevertheless, however much money was a factor in their decision, the current mean earnings in the $170-$250K range, with taxes and all taken out, seems sufficient to motivate students to become and remain doctors.

  7. “my GP makes around $110 k per year. and $400K for neurosurgeon?”


    You must be living in rural North Dakota.

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