A number of political pundits, legal experts, and even government officials argue that President Barack Obama should use the 14th Amendment to circumvent the debt ceiling and avoid default. The New York Times reports:
A few days ago, former President Bill Clinton identified a constitutional escape hatch should President Obama and Congress fail to come to terms on a deficit reduction plan before the government hits its borrowing ceiling.
He pointed to an obscure provision in the 14th Amendment, saying he would unilaterally invoke it “without hesitation” to raise the debt ceiling, “and force the courts to stop me.”
On Friday, Mr. Obama rejected the idea, though not in categorical terms.
“I have talked to my lawyers,” Mr. Obama said. “They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”
Despite President Obama’s resistance to this idea, some House Democrats are pushing it. Politico reports:
Rep. James Clyburn and a group of House Democrats are urging President Barack Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment to raise the debt ceiling if Congress can’t come up with a satisfactory plan before the Tuesday deadline.
Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, said Wednesday that if the president is delivered a bill to raise the debt ceiling for only a short period of time, he should instead veto it and turn to the phrase in the Constitution that says the validity of the U.S. government’s debt “shall not be questioned.”
According to the New York Times article, “Jack M. Balkin, a law professor at Yale” argues:
“This is largely a political question,” he said. “It is unlikely courts would decide these questions.”
“At the point at which the economy is melting down, who cares what the Supreme Court is going to say?” Professor Balkin said. “It’s the president’s duty to save the Republic.”
Similarly, Eugene Robinson writes at the Washington Post:
It seems to me that definitive action — unilateral, if necessary — to prevent the nation from suffering obvious, imminent, grievous harm is one of the duties any president must perform. Perhaps the most important duty.
This seems all too familiar because it comes straight out of history. In ancient Rome, Sulla was given dictatorial power to restore the republic. By violating Rome’s constitution, Sulla and the Senators that gave him power established a precedent that enabled Julius Caesar to become dictator for life and destroy the republic. Similarly, men like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler also rose to power and expanded their control under the guise of saving the nation.
The Founding Fathers, being students of history, knew that extra-constitutional actions would only undermine the republic in the name of restoring it. As George Washington explained in his farewell address:
If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
— Michael E. Newton is the author of the highly acclaimed The Path to Tyranny: A History of Free Society’s Descent into Tyranny. His newest book, Angry Mobs and Founding Fathers: The Fight for Control of the American Revolution, was released by Eleftheria Publishing in July and is now available in stores.