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Santema, Obama Agree: 14th Amendment Doesn’t Allow Executive Debt Ceiling Boost

Last updated on 2013.01.06

I am pleased to see libertarian Ken Santema and President Barack Obama agreeing that the 14th Amendment does not authorize the President to unilaterally increase the federal debt ceiling:

As I understand Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment it was designed to do two important things:

  1. It ensured the Federal Government had to pay its Civil War debt. This is the first sentence of Section 4.
  2. It ensured the Federal Government was not responsible for debt incurred by the Confederation. This is the second sentence of Section 4.

I do take this to mean that the Federal Government cannot default on legally authorized debt. But I don’t see how this gives power to the President to change the debt ceiling [Ken Santema, "The Fourteenth Amendment – A Way for the President to Raise the Debt Ceiling?" SoDakLiberty, 2013.01.05].

Says our President:

...this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the President the power to ignore the debt ceiling -- period [White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House press briefing, 2012.12.06].

...this administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the President the power to ignore the debt ceiling [White House press secretary Jay Carney, White House press briefing, 2011.07.29].

Ah, bipartisanship. Instead of stretching the Constitution, let's just focus on practical policymaking.


  1. Chris S. 2013.01.05

    Of course, the debt ceiling itself is likely unconstitutional. It's congress refusing to pay the bill for things it already spent money on.

    Try buying something on the credit card, then later tell Citibank that your personal "debt ceiling" can't be raised, so you're not paying the bill. See how that works out.

    But when it happens in congress? It's very serious policy-making! Or something.

  2. Bill Fleming 2013.01.05

    I think Chris has it right. The president doesn't have the authority to raise the debt ceiling perhaps, but the 14th Amendment makes it clear that the nation must honor its debts. And as chief executive, the pres is the one to order the checks to be written. It's not about new debt, it's about existing debt.

  3. David Newquist 2013.01.05

    Back during the Newt Gingrich debacle when Bill Clinton was president, a question came up about some disaster relief funds to be distributed if the government shut down. At the time one of the leaders in the Senate was Tom Daschle, and the response to the question about paying obligations was answered by this clause in Article II defining the president's obligations and powers: "he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed..." The interpretation was that for any obligation incurred through duly executed laws, the President has the authority to require that they be paid. I, among others, have wondered why that approach has not been raised in response to using the debt ceiling to force budget cuts. While the President cannot raise the debt ceiling, he can require that all obligations be met, even if they exceed the debt ceiling, which as Chris S. suggests, has questionable Constitutional standing.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.01.06

    Chris, that's a good point! We often forget when we talk about the national debt that we aren't just talking about current spending; we're talking about paying down the trillions of dollars we've already spent on goods and services that we wanted. Even if we shut down the federal government completely, we'd still have to collect the current amount of revenue for at least six straight years to pay off the national credit card. Of course, it would take longer than that, because shutting down nearly all federal spending would lead to a widespread depression that would tank our tax revenues.

    You gents duly remind us that Kristi's "we don't have a taxing problem; we have a spending problem" talking point ignores our obligation to pay the debts in which she, Janklow, Thune, Johnson, Daschle, Pressler, Abdnor, et al. have all been complicit.

    But I wonder: Does Article I, Section 7 still leave the power to pay those debts in the hands of Congress?

  5. Ken Santema 2013.01.06

    In addition to Article I, Section 7, I would look at Article I, Section 8, where it states one of the powers of Congress: "To borrow money on the credit of the United States;" If the President were to ignore the debt ceiling set by Congress it would technically be the President authorizing borrowing.

    Either way I thinks Congress needs to work hard on short, medium, and long term solutions. This will likely require more than 1 bill! DC needs to start adding strategic planning to their current tactical approach.

  6. Bill Fleming 2013.01.06

    Nonsense. The U.S. (theoretically) has unlimited credit. The only (outside) limits to it are if Congress decides not to pay the debts they have already —by their own legislative action — incurred. Again, the President wouldn't be raising the debt ceiling, he would instead be keeping the full faith and credit of the USA intact, which is part of his job description as chief executive.

  7. Douglas Wiken 2013.01.06

    "This will likely require more than 1 bill! DC needs to start adding strategic planning to their current tactical approach. "
    No kidding. I watched Sen. McConnell today. Of course network moderators failed to ask him how that kill everything in order to prevent Obama getting a second term thingy worked for him. Every interview with him by anybody should be prefaced with that.

    But no sense of long-term strategy or planning was evident in his single talking point. Less spending, not more taxes. Where was this piece of dog excrement when Bush was running two wars off the budget?

    We have these fools screeching to a shaky stop right before the GOP Quagmire because they have no courage. With a finger continuously in the wind from the wrong direction, they will continue to make the USA look like a back-water third world incompetency center with monkeys chattering in the surrounding trees and parrots endlessly repeating, "No tax increases". Squawk squawk. A bridge in Virginia needs a new cracker dispenser.

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