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.
Republican economist Bruce Bartlett, who believes that the Republicans are playing with “the financial equivalent of nuclear weapons”, argues that Section 4 renders the debt ceiling unconstitutional, and obligates the President to consider the debt ceiling null and void.
. . . .I believe that the president would be justified in taking extreme actions to protect against a debt default. In the event that congressional irresponsibility makes default impossible to avoid, I think he should order the secretary of the Treasury to simply disregard the debt limit and sell whatever securities are necessary to raise cash to pay the nation’s debts. They are protected by the full faith and credit of the United States and preventing default is no less justified than using American military power to protect against an armed invasion without a congressional declaration of war.
Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that the debt limit is statutory law, which is trumped by the Constitution and there is a little known provision that relates to this issue. Section 4 of the 14th Amendment says, “The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.” This could easily justify the sort of extraordinary presidential action to avoid default that I am suggesting.
Constitutional history is replete with examples where presidents justified extraordinary actions by extraordinary circumstances. During the George W. Bush administration many Republicans defended the most expansive possible reading of the president’s powers, especially concerning national security. Since default on the debt would clearly have dire consequences for our relations with China, Japan and other large holders of Treasury securities, it’s hard to see how defenders of Bush’s policies would now say the president must stand by and do nothing when a debt default poses an imminent national security threat.
Mr. Bartlett is not alone, Garret Epps, journalist and professor of law at Baltimore University, agrees and proposes the President should give a speech declaring, ‘The Constitution Forbids Default’.
Democratic members of the Senate, too, have begun exploring the possibility of declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional:
“This is an issue that’s been raised in some private debate between senators as to whether in fact we can default, or whether that provision of the Constitution can be held up as preventing default,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), an attorney, told The Huffington Post Tuesday. “I don’t think, as of a couple weeks ago, when this was first raised, it was seen as a pressing option. But I’ll tell you that it’s going to get a pretty strong second look as a way of saying, ‘Is there some way to save us from ourselves?'”
By declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional, the White House could continue to meet its financial obligations, leaving Tea Party-backed Republicans in the difficult position of arguing against the plain wording of the Constitution. Bipartisan negotiators are debating the size of the cuts, now in the trillions, that will come along with raising the debt ceiling.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that the constitutional solution puts the question in its proper context — that the debate is over paying past debts, not over future spending.
“The way everybody talks about this is that we need to raise the debt ceiling. What we’re really saying is, ‘We have to pay our bills,'” Murray said. The 14th Amendment approach is “fascinating,” she added.
Let the games continue.
Up dates below the fold.