No, You Can’t Invoke the 14th Amendment to Raise the Debt Ceiling
Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills by June 1 if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling. This has led to a game of chicken between the White House and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
President Biden has demanded Congress pass legislation that raises the debt ceiling without any changes to the way the federal government spends money. House Republicans passed a budget bill that would raise the debt ceiling but would also return government spending to 2022 levels. In addition, citing the fact that Social Security is on pace to be insolvent by 2035, the Republican spending plan proposes modifications to Social Security that would increase its chances of long-term sustainability. The White House has opposed all of it.
Instead of compromising with the majority of Republicans in the House, some on the Left have come up with a theory that would allow them to act unilaterally. In fact, Senate Democrats held a press conference encouraging President Biden to “invoke the 14th Amendment” so they can raise the debt ceiling without the involvement of the Congress.
As a matter of habit, the U.S. spends more money than we bring in. As a result, we’re forced to borrow money each month to pay the bills, which means that next month’s bill is always higher than last month’s bill. The U.S. debt is now over $31 trillion dollars, which represents more than $94,000 per citizen. It was only $12 trillion in 2010.
Because of our habitual overspending, Congress routinely considers legislation to raise the debt ceiling. In fact, Congress has raised the debt limit 13 times since 2000. Despite our familiarity with debt limit debates, no one has ever proposed “invoking the 14th Amendment” as a way of raising the debt limit before. The reason no one has ever proposed it before is because it’s nonsense.
The 14th Amendment does many things, but the relevant section for this discussion is Section 4, which 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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations, and claims shall be held illegal and void.”
The 14th Amendment was passed right after the Civil War in 1868 and sought to put the issues of the Civil War in the past in several ways. It clarified that all people, regardless of their skin color, would enjoy equal protection under the law. In addition, to avoid any attempts to revive the struggle, it prohibited civil and military officers who had supported the Confederacy from holding any state or federal office again. Most relevant to this discussion, it also said the debts of the Union “shall not be questioned” but the Union was not going to pay the debts of the Confederacy.
Now, you have most Democrats in the U.S. Senate claiming that this language — which was unambiguously a promise to pay Union debt but not Confederate debt — somehow gives President Biden the power to ignore Congress when it comes to debt ceiling legislation in 2023.
While this interpretation is absurd on its face, it’s worth remembering the Supreme Court was recently convinced the word “sex” actually means “gender identity,” and by extension the word “woman” actually means “anyone who wants to be a woman.” Once you’ve accepted the progressive claim that language can mean anything you want it to mean, the only limits to the Constitution are the limits to your creativity.
To be fair, even if there was an attempt to “invoke the 14th Amendment” to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, legal challenges would follow and the Supreme Court would likely halt the effort as the unconstitutional abuse of power it would be.
The good news is, there are points of agreement in this debate. Both the president and Congress agree a default on U.S. debt would be terrible. But whatever the problem is, consolidating political power into the hands of one man and destroying the checks and balances our system is built upon is not the solution.
If Democrats doubt this, they would do well to remember that once upon a time, they didn’t love the president, and that guy is trying to be president again. If they don’t want to live in a world where a crazy old guy is doing whatever he wants from the White House, they shouldn’t try to create a world in which a crazy old guy is allowed to do whatever he wants in the White House.
Joseph Backholm is Senior Fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council.