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With debt limit options narrowing, 14th Amendment chatter returns

Paul M. Krawzak, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

And in Section 4, the 14th Amendment says 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.” The section prohibited the federal government or states from paying any debt or obligation incurred to aid the insurrection “or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave.”

Scholars say the public debt section was included in part based on fears that a future Congress dominated by formerly Confederate states would repudiate federal debt or guarantee Confederate debt.

But when the question was percolating during the Obama administration, several scholars argued the amendment allows the president to continue borrowing after the debt limit expires.

Former President Bill Clinton said in 2011 that during his 1995-96 budget standoff with Republicans, his staff researched the constitutional implications and that he would use the 14th Amendment “without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me.”

However, at that time President Barack Obama said he had talked with his lawyers and they were “not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”

On July 8, 2011, with less than a month to go before potentially running out of funds, Treasury general counsel George Madison wrote that then-Secretary Timothy F. Geithner “has never argued that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the President to disregard the statutory debt limit … the Constitution explicitly places the borrowing authority with Congress, not the President.”


The 2011 debt limit fight led Obama, a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House, then led by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, to reach a deal to raise the debt limit in exchange for a series of discretionary spending caps that expires at the end of the current fiscal year.

But that measure didn’t clear Congress until Aug. 2, the day Treasury was expected to run out of borrowing authority, and resulted in such steep spending cuts that Democrats pledged never to negotiate over the debt ceiling again.

Obama touched on the 14th Amendment again during a fight over the debt limit in 2013. He said that even if it were constitutional, it would be “tied up in litigation for a long time” and “that’s going to make people nervous.”

Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, told reporters on Sept. 30, 2013, weeks before that year’s mid-October deadline, that the “president can’t raise it by himself.”


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