Constitutional Law

Can Obama ignore the debt ceiling? Three constitutional arguments provide a 'yes' answer


Is White House press secretary Jay Carney correct about the Constitution and the debt ceiling?

Carney says the Constitution gives only Congress the authority to borrow money, and only Congress can increase the debt ceiling. But some law scholars say the Constitution authorizes President Obama to continue borrowing after that ceiling is reached, the New York Times reports.

Three arguments are being made, the Times says. One relies on Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, enacted to ensure the payment of Union debts after the Civil War. It 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.”

A second argument contends that the president has inherent emergency powers to protect the country.

A third argument, advanced in this 2012 article (PDF) in the Columbia Law Review, says the president would be faced with irreconcilable choices if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. The president has been told to spend, but not to raise taxes or borrow. As a result, the article says, the president must “choose the least unconstitutional option”—which is issuing more debt.

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