The 14th Amendment, the Debt Ceiling and a Way Out

tags: debt ceiling




WASHINGTON — A few days ago, former President Bill Clinton identified a constitutional escape hatch should President Obama and Congress fail to come to terms on a deficit reduction plan before the government hits its borrowing ceiling.

He pointed to an obscure provision in the 14th Amendment, saying he would unilaterally invoke it “without hesitation” to raise the debt ceiling, “and force the courts to stop me.”...

The provision in question, Section 4 of the amendment, was meant to ensure the payment of Union debts after the Civil War and to disavow Confederate ones. But it was written in broader terms.

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion,” the critical sentence says, “shall not be questioned.”

The Supreme Court has said in passing that those words have outlived the historical moment that gave rise to them.

“While this provision was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for the court in 1935, “its language indicates a broader connotation.”...



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