Resolving some hostage crises – as when Putin grabs American basketball players and Wall Street Journal reporters – can require making difficult trade-offs with thugs. But the refusal of Congressional Republicans to lift the debt ceiling is not one of them.
The U.S. Constitution is clear that no law, of any kind, trumps the mandate of the 14th Amendment, which expressly states that “[t] he validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned.”
This language was added to the Constitution in the aftermath of the Civil War to ensure that the government could not repudiate its obligations to pay back the bonds that had been issued to fund the war effort. And the Supreme Court has found that this language means exactly what it says, specifically ruling in Perry v. U.S. (1935) that when Congress acts to invalidate an existing debt of the federal government, that act of Congress is “beyond the congressional power” and therefore unconstitutional.
For the “textualists” on the Supreme Court, the specific words in the 14th Amendment and the nearly 90-year-old precedent of the Perry case should make this an easy decision. No President or Secretary of the Treasury has a choice about whether to pay the country’s bills, whether they want to or not, regardless of what any particular Congress does with a statutory debt limit. All of our existing national debt has indeed been “authorized by law,” or it could not have been incurred in the first place.
Rather than negotiate with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, and those members of his caucus who have taken him hostage, President Biden and Secretary of the Treasury Yellen have the Constitutional obligation to keep paying the nation’s bills. This includes the more than 28 trillion dollars built up under President Biden’s predecessors (about a quarter of which was incurred under Donald Trump), and the roughly 3 trillion dollars added to it since. If Congress wants to cut that debt, it can raise taxes, or cut spending in whatever combinations and amounts it and the President agree upon. Or let it vaporize over time by inflation.
As to how to communicate the reality to the world that our Constitution prohibits any federal default, the President could give a brief speech to lay it out. After listening to Biden for some 40 years, we can even write it for him. So here goes:
My Fellow Americans:
I come before you today to discuss a matter of grave importance to our nation’s economy and our standing in the world. As you all know, the debt limit is a tool that Congress uses to regulate the amount of money that the government can borrow. For months, while that limit has been fast approaching, this Congress has failed to raise it. Republican members of Congress say they won’t do that unless we wipe out essential government services that the American people – and really the whole world – rely on.
Now, let’s be honest, some folks in Congress want to play games with this. They want to use the debt limit as a political weapon, to score points and advance their own agendas. But that’s not how we do things in America. Look, here’s the deal, we don’t put our own interests above the good of the country.
Folks, the fact of the matter is that adopting the outrageous budget cuts proposed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the slender Republican majority in Congress would mean devastating shutdowns of basic services for the veterans who have served our country in times of war and times of peace. It would gut food programs that help our farmers feed millions of Americans, shut down our efforts to combat climate change and protect our national natural heritage. It would weaken our national defense and our ability to protect our borders, force fundamental cuts to health care, and leave us unable to invest to meet the challenge of competition from China.
We’re better than this. It’s a matter of decency – I will not abandon our efforts to rebuild our country by allowing anyone, not even Speaker McCarthy, to hold our national well-being hostage to their demands.
C’mon, man, just do the right thing, this is not a joke, pass the debt limit, then we can come to the table – together – to build America back better than ever.
But let me make one thing clear: default is not an option. We cannot and will not default on our debts. It’s non-negotiable. And the reason why is simple: the 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that the validity of our public debt shall not be questioned. It is my view that this clause must be interpreted to mean that the debt limit is unconstitutional. That’s a fact. By imposing a limit on the amount of money that the government can borrow, Congress is questioning the validity of the debt that has already been authorized by law. That would be a clear violation of the 14th Amendment. And here’s another fact: there’s a Supreme Court precedent saying this which is older than I am. This is true, folks. You can look it up.
Therefore, I have decided that I will not allow the debt limit to stand in the way of our obligations to our creditors – including our senior citizens, our veterans, and our families, as well as anyone who holds U.S. government-issued bonds. I will carry out my duty as President to take care that our laws are faithfully executed. I will instruct the Treasury Department to continue to borrow money as necessary to pay our bills, even if this means exceeding the debt limit. I am confident that this action is both necessary and constitutional.
I recognize that this decision may be controversial. I am always ready to work with Congress to find long-term solutions to our fiscal challenges. Nothing is beyond our capacity. We can do this. I’m optimistic. But we can’t afford to wait. So, in the meantime, we will not allow the debt limit to undermine our financial stability and our stated willingness to honor our commitments.
This is not a decision that I have taken lightly. But I believe that it is the right thing to do, both for the American people and for our Constitution.
Thank you, and may God bless America, and God bless our troops.