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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Debt Ceiling and the 14th Amendment

On this date in 1868, the legislature of Louisiana voted to ratify the 14th Amendment, thus providing it with the approval of three-fourths of the state legislatures necessary to become part of the Constitution.

In The New York Times, Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe writes:
Several law professors and senators, and even Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, have suggested that section 4 of the 14th Amendment, known as the public debt clause, might provide a silver bullet. This provision states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned.” They argue that the public debt clause is sufficient to nullify the ceiling — or can be used to permit the president to borrow money without regard to the ceiling.

The Constitution grants only Congress — not the president — the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” Nothing in the 14th Amendment or in any other constitutional provision suggests that the president may usurp legislative power to prevent a violation of the Constitution. Moreover, it is well established that the president’s power drops to what Justice Robert H. Jackson called its “lowest ebb” when exercised against the express will of Congress.
A core function of the Constitution is to “force us into a conversation” about our future, Mr. Obama once wrote. Sometimes, it does this by establishing principles citizens can invoke when they believe the government has overreached. At other times, it does so by directing us back to the political drawing board.

It is this second message the Constitution is sending at this moment. As Justice John Marshall Harlan II presciently warned, “the Constitution is not a panacea for every blot upon the public welfare.” Only political courage and compromise, coupled with adherence to traditions that call upon Congress to fulfill its unique constitutional duty, can avert an impending crisis.