Obama, the Debt, and the 14th Amendment

tags: debt ceiling



Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.

PRINCETON, N.J. — THE Republicans in the House of Representatives who declare that they may refuse to raise the debt limit threaten to do more than plunge the government into default. They are proposing a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment, which states that “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law” is sacrosanct and “shall not be questioned.”

Yet the Obama administration has repeatedly suppressed any talk of invoking the Constitution in this emergency. Last Thursday Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said, “We do not believe that the 14th Amendment provides that authority to the president” to end the crisis. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew reiterated the point on Sunday and added that the president would have “no option” to prevent a default on his own.

In defense of the administration’s position, the legal scholar Laurence H. Tribe, who taught President Obama at Harvard Law School, has insisted, as he put it two years ago, that “only political courage and compromise” can avert disaster.

These assertions, however, have no basis in the history of the 14th Amendment; indeed, they distort that history, and in doing so shackle the president. In fact, that record clearly shows that Congress intended the amendment to prevent precisely the abuses that the current House Republicans blithely condone....



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