Does Congress Have A Constitutional Obligation To Raise The Debt Ceiling?

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Section four of the Fourteenth Amendment, known as the public debt clause, states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” The clause was included to prevent Southerners or their sympathizers from preventing payments owed to Union soldiers or their widows. However, the language goes beyond the narrow issue of Civil War debts.

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, the United States will not be able to service its outstanding debt, that is,  pay interest to bondholders. Congress would indicate it is unwilling to pay the public debt. Unwillingness to pay a debt has the same effect as an denial of the debt obligation, effectively a repudiation of the debt.

In the New York Times Professor Laurence Tribe wrote:

The Constitution grants only Congress — not the president — the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”

In response to Professor Tribe’s op-ed, Treasury’s General Counsel George W. Madison wrote “Congress has an obligation to ensure we are able to honor the obligations of the United States.” That obligation is a constitutional obligation.

President Obama, always willing to let a political opportunity slip though his fingers, has not clearly denounced the Republican strategy on constitutional grounds. It is unfathomable that Obama would decry the effects of defaulting on the national debt and then not use every political weapon to ensure such a default doesn’t occur.

The debt issue should be framed as the President defending the Constitution and the Republicans violating the Constitution. That would generate the kind of public pressure that Republicans respond to.

H/T: Jack Balkin.

 

46 thoughts on “Does Congress Have A Constitutional Obligation To Raise The Debt Ceiling?”

  1. Apropos the Debt Ceiling.

    Quiz Time:

    Who said this: “We’ve got to get our fiscal house in order here in Washington… Not sure it’s going to happen under the current leadership”?

    Answer

  2. @GeneH,

    Five seconds with Google should have been enough to teach you what scare quotes are. Or were you just trying to subtley back away from responding to my argument and hope that no one noticed?

  3. kderosa,

    If you’re scared by quotation marks, I suggest contacting a mental health professional or an English instructor. Delineation of words or groups of words as topics by quotation marks is a standard grammatical usage. If grammar scares though (and it apparently does), it does somewhat explain your tenuous relationship with vocabulary.

  4. And he mentions water as well, something you can’t live without for long.

    But look how quickly he has learned the lefty playbook that the regulars must pass around to their fellow travelers.

    Name call, discredit your opponents through subtle and not so subtle ad hominems, nitpick, throw your crentials around, change the argument, and fall in with the herd. Then, accuse you opponents of doing these things.

    It’s funny that they think that people don’t see past this little ruse of theirs.

  5. kderosa:

    I think you are right because he mentions mortgage as an example of a mandatory expense. A mortgage is something a person must pay a fixed amount toward every month (unless of course you get a new mortgage). But most people understand a mortgage to be fixed and mandatory.

  6. No, it was clear that you said it based on the mistaken belief that we should cut things we have discretion over first rather than things we are obligated to pay, right? That’s why you put scare quotes around those words and exhorted us to learn the meanings of those words. Then you hilariously named a few frivolous discretionary items in a typical personal budget. Meanings that you apparently didn’t understand.

    Now, what you are doing is falling back to a face-saving position with your new “I said that as a matter of good budgetary practice (as taught by any reliable economics or accounting classes) that one should always look to cut discretionary spending before cutting mandatory spending.” argument. This new argument still relies on your misunderstanding of what “mandatory” and “discretionary” federal budget items are.

    So go ahead and fall back on your “perpetual mischaracterizations” and “I don’t take you seriously in the slightest” ad hominems if they will help you assuage the pain and humiliation of being wrong yet again. Or, maybe you could bark a little and see if your buddies will come running to help you out.

  7. kderosa,

    “Obviously, discretionary spending can be altered through the budgeting process. Mandatory spending also can be easily altered at the whim of Congress by changing the eligibility and payment rules. They are not mandatory in the sanse that we are obligated to fund them at some current level into perpetuity.

    Your distinction is a false one.”

    Actually, it’s your mischaracterization of what I said that is a false distinction.

    I didn’t say mandatory spending could not be altered. I said that as a matter of good budgetary practice (as taught by any reliable economics or accounting classes) that one should always look to cut discretionary spending before cutting mandatory spending. You seem to spend a lot of your time posting here trying to mischaracterize others statements or insert your premises into their arguments. That’s one of the reasons I don’t take you seriously in the slightest. While perpetual mischaracterizations can be a result of ignorance, both they and inserting your premises into others statements are disingenuous at best and lying at worst. However, that I don’t take you seriously doesn’t mean I’m going to let you get away with that little troll tactic of yours without correcting it.

  8. The great irony in this debt limit conversation (blackmail actually) is that the Administration would fail to use, or even threaten, this Constitutional mandate, because they are completely “centrist” in thought.Far from being the “radicals” their opponents suggest, their decision making is mired in an inability to conceptualize beyond “common wisdom” when it comes to negotiating. You can’t effectuate “change” when you can’t look beyond political cant. You can’t win a negotiation when faced with an intransigent stance and try to meet it with reason. At some point in negotiating with bullies you have to meet threats with threats and your threats need to be ones you are prepared to act upon. The Administration is unwilling to act this way and so the bullies cause concessions when none are needed.

  9. @GeneH

    Those terms, “discretionary spending” and “mandatory spending,” don’t mean what you think they mean.

    Discretionary spending refers to “the portion of the budget which goes through the annual appropriations process each year”

    Mandatory spending includes “programs, mostly entitlement programs, which are funded by eligibility rules or payment rules.”

    Obviously, discretionary spending can be altered through the budgeting process. Mandatory spending also can be easily altered at the whim of Congress by changing the eligibility and payment rules. They are not mandatory in the sanse that we are obligated to fund them at some current level into perpetuity.

    Your distinction is a false one.

  10. What I find interesting is that with all the talk of health care costs that nobody in Washington seems to mention that the largest part of our discretionary spending, the Perpetual Wars, or that the largest cost component of those wars is health care (and fuel costs). I think maybe they don’t mention it because it would point to Congresses inability to grasp the meanings of the words “discretionary” and “mandatory”. It would also point to their inability to understand than in dealing with trimming a budget, you should always cut discretionary spending before mandatory spending. You don’t increase your entertainment expenses and pay for it by cutting off your water or not paying the mortgage/rent unless you’re a crack addict or perhaps a Big Oil campaign contribution addict. Overcoming denial is the first step in dealing with an addiction problem.

  11. puzzling

    My understanding is that the President’s $4T proposals comes only if and when the GOP agrees to some out and out tax increases that would end their protection of the wealthy and break their inane pledge to Grover freaking Norquist.

  12. The 14th Amendment language virtually guarantees that previously obligated debts must be and can continue to be paid. I Think that the Administration shouldn’t even debate that but make the statement as the fact that it is and publicly reassure the world and it’s own citizens that valid debts falling under that clause will continue to be paid. Beyond those debts chaos may ensue but there’s no reason that there should be any insecurity on the possibility that the US won’t be paying it’s bills regarding loans or entitlements of whatever kinds that have been made. The BS needs to be separated from the reality.

  13. There’s ample revenue to service the debt. There will not be enough revenue to service the debt and administer all the wars and full entitlement spending at the same time. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling they would need to shut off other spending to avoid default. The debt limit will be raised regardless.

    Now that Obama is seeking spending cuts on the same $4T scale as the original Paul Ryan plan we may be making a small dent in the conversation about our financial future. A lot of the cuts the President wants are to Social Security and Medicare, but cuts to government functions need to be much, much deeper.

    Rather than roughly $2 trillion in savings, the White House is now seeking a plan that would slash more than $4 trillion from annual budget deficits over the next decade, stabilize borrowing, and defuse the biggest budgetary time bombs that are set to explode as the cost of health care rises and the nation’s population ages.

  14. “President Obama, always willing to let a political opportunity slip though his fingers, has not clearly denounced the Republican strategy on constitutional grounds.”

    *****************

    How right you are. I wouldn’t let him negotiate a new car for me.

  15. “If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, the United States will not be able to service its outstanding debt, that is, pay interest to bondholders.”

    Sure they can. As Tribe suggests, “In theory, Congress could pay debts not only by borrowing more money, but also by exercising its powers to impose taxes, to coin money or to sell federal property.”

    So, it is unlikely the demagoguery you suggest would be very effective in garnering public sympathy since all the Republicans have to do is to point to liberal scion and Constitutional scholar Larry Tribe’s opinion.

  16. I wonder if Wall Streeter and the ones paying for the benefits of the DoD contracts gave back that money…would we need to raise the debt?….

    Then again…if we default…would we be in Greece…..

  17. This is what happens when you have child like thinkers in charge.It like watching a game of “simon says”.

  18. “The debt issue should be framed as the President defending the Constitution and the Republicans violating the Constitution. That would generate the kind of public pressure that Republicans respond to.”

    Which is business as usual in Washington: Cite the Constitution when it is convenient and ignore it when it is expedient.

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