The Constitutionality of Debt

As the deadline for a debt ceiling agreement nears, there has been an increase in alternative ideas to the Federal government’s fiscal dilemma. One of these ideas, while slightly radical, presents an interesting Constitutional challenge to the entire debate as discussed by Bruce Bartlett on the Capital Gains and Games blog:

One idea comes from Peterson Institute economist Joseph Gagnon, a former Federal Reserve official. He suggested to me that the Federal Reserve could temporarily buy some of the Treasury’s $300 billion stock of gold. This would allow the Fed to create cash that the Treasury could use to pay its bills until the debt limit is increased, at which time Treasury could simply buy it back. It would be a purely paper transaction that would have no real effect on the price of gold or anything else. The Fed could simultaneously sell an equal amount of securities from its portfolio to prevent the money supply from rising more than it desires.

A more radical solution would be to simply disregard the debt limit altogether on constitutional grounds, an idea I suggested in the Fiscal Times on April 29. University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps made a similar suggestion in The Atlantic on May 4.

The essence of the argument involves section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “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.”

In my view and that of Prof. Epps, this means that the president would have constitutional authority to take extraordinary measures to protect the public credit and prevent a debt default even if it means disregarding the debt limit, which is statutory law subordinate to the Constitution.

Since my article appeared, I have had the opportunity to do further research on this topic and now feel even more strongly that the Fourteenth Amendment trumps the debt limit. I found strong support for this position in a law review article by George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz. Writing in the Tulsa Law Journal (“Beyond Balanced Budgets, Fourteenth Amendment Style,” 33:2, Winter 1997, pp. 561-612), he concludes that any government action “making uncertain whether or not a debt will be honored is unconstitutional.” As Abramowicz explains:

“A debt does not become valid or invalid only at the moment payment is due. A debt’s validity may be assessed at any time, and a debt is valid only if the law provides that it will be honored. Therefore, a requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments…. Moreover, there is no such thing as a valid debt that will nonetheless not be honored; a debt cannot be called “valid” if existing laws will cause default on it. So as soon as Congress passes a statute that will lead to default in the absence of a change of course, the debt is invalid (or at least of questionable validity) and Congress has violated the original meaning of the Public Debt Clause.”

To my mind, this means that the very existence of the debt limit is unconstitutional because it calls into question the validity of the debt. So would any other provision of law. That is a key reason why Congress created a permanent appropriation for interest payments at the same time that the Fourteenth Amendment was debated. Previously, Congress had to pass annual appropriations for interest.

It’s interesting to note that those usually demanding Constitutional fidelity are oddly silent on this issue. Should the Administration pursue this course, it will make for political fireworks in a presidential election year, since only Congress would have standing in court to challenge the White House. If Washington can strike a deal or not remains to be seen, but regardless the need for meaningful reform remains.

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2 Responses to The Constitutionality of Debt

  1. John Nail says:

    I am going to approach this Constitutional debate from another angle. That President Obama would risk impeachment by NOT acting under the 14th Amendment to prevent default.

    Whether any of us like it or not it this debt ceiling debate is all about the “obligations” that Congress over time has signed into law, not the bonds.

    The ceiling raise has nothing to do with future spending, only that which has already been committed to by this and prior sessions of Congress over out history.

    We elected them, they act via their Constitutional responsibility passes laws/funding programs, we own it and has the “full faith and credit” of the US behind it. These are all laws that then need to be upheld, ie honored.

    The Constitution is by definition the original document plus any and all Amendments to it so trying to separate the two is a specious argument as well.

    In PERRY V. UNITED STATES, 294 U. S. 330 (1935)SCOTUS addreses the larger context of debt as “obligations” that further supports the notion that default would be unconstitutional and thus stopping it would be required of the President:

    “…The government’s contention thus raises a question of far greater importance than the particular claim of the plaintiff. On that reasoning, if the terms of the government’s bond as to the standard of payment can be repudiated, it inevitably follows that the obligation as to the amount to be paid may also be repudiated. The contention necessarily imports that the Congress can disregard the obligations of the government at its discretion, and that, when the government borrows money, the credit of the United States is an illusory pledge.

    We do not so read the Constitution….To say that the Congress may withdraw or ignore that pledge is to assume that the Constitution contemplates a vain promise; a pledge having no other sanction than the pleasure and convenience of the pledgor. This Court has given no sanction to such a conception of the obligations of our government.

    The Fourteenth Amendment, in its fourth section, explicitly declares: ‘The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, * * * shall not be questioned.’ While this provision was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War, its language indicates a broader connotation. We regard it as confirmatory of a fundamental principle which applies as well to the government bonds in question, and to others duly authorized by the Congress, as to those issued before the amendment was adopted. Nor can we perceive any reason for not considering the expression ‘the validity of the public debt’ as embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.”

    The office of the President as “Chief Executive” is empowered by the Constitution that “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”.

    He is also Constitutionally bound by his oath of office:

    “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

    This creates a slippery slope for any President. In other words he has no choice in acting per the Constitution lest he violate his oath and for that could be subject to impeachment.

    A secondary argument, slightly less compelling, is that in his job as Commander in Chief to protect the nation against any threats could be cited here. A default that plunges the nation into another recession and costs the taxpayers hundreds of billions in additional Federal interest payments and billions more in higher credit card, mortgage and consumer loans threatens the nation as much as any war or attack does. Not acting would weaken the nation considerably and his failure to protect the nation from this sort of “attack” would also be seen as a failure to fulfill his oath.

    So the 14th/PERRY V. UNITED STATES makes it clear on the debt’s validity and the fact that it cannot be abrogated in anyway that diminishes the full faith and credit of the nation and its trust with any one owed money via a statute approved by Congress, be it your mom on SS, a cleaning contractor for a federal building or foreign nations holding bonds. All are equally valid and must be honored.

    So no action by Congress is illegal and the Debt Ceiling law in any dispute is trumped by the Constitution. In “Perry” Chief Justice Hughes wrote the majority opinion: “We do not so read the Constitution…the Congress has not been vested with authority to alter or destroy those obligations.”

    Altering those obligations means that the terms of meeting them cannot be changed in anyway so even a default of a few days or a program to pay bills in some order with revenues is not allowed. So inaction that allows any sort of modification is out of the question as well.

    If Obama does not act to avert the crisis if negotiations fail that is a more compelling reason to Impeach than trying to claim that he exceeds his Constitutional power in resolving the crisis using the 14th.

  2. roopost says:

    Drae,
    A very interesting view point.
    Kind regards,

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