-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.