Can Obama Unilaterally Raise the Debt Ceiling via the Fourteenth Amendment?


Home / Can Obama Unilaterally Raise the Debt Ceiling via the Fourteenth Amendment?
14th amendment ratification  Image by snowfire.

These are the states that ratified the 14th, sorted by the order in which ratification occurred. Dark blue states ratified first, gray states were not yet states during the ratification period. 
Image by snowfire

According to experts, if the debt ceiling is not raised by October 17, 2013, the United States will either run out of money to pay its debts, or stop spending for entitlements.

Currently there is an impasse, with the Republican House agreeing only to raise the debt-ceiling if there’s a delay in implementation of the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, and Democrats refusing to consider the idea.

Although a resolution of the crisis is certainly possible, more likely to be reached at the 11th hour, what happens if the magic date arrives and the government has not increased the debt-ceiling?

Does the president have the constitutional authority to increase the ceiling on his own, without resorting to Congress?

The argument that he has this power centers around the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

The Purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment

The U.S. government passed the 14th amendment on June 13, 1866, and states ratified it on July 9, 1868 – although none of the southern states supported it at the time. It was one of three amendments to the Constitution that were passed in the wake of the Civil War.

The United States passed the 14th Amendment to ensure that the Civil Rights Act, also passed in 1866, would be upheld. The main purpose of the Civil Rights Act was to guarantee recently freed slaves would acquire full rights as citizens of the United States.

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment states:

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.

Section 4 was enacted after the Civil War because it was feared that some Southern legislators would vote to prevent the United States from paying bills incurred in putting down the confederacy.

Can Obama Act Alone? Some Say ‘Yes, He Can’

Some constitutional experts believe the president has the inherent power to act alone in an emergency – and that the United States defaulting on its bills would constitute such an emergency.

Although the United States specifically enacted section 4 to prevent a very specific occurrence that might have resulted in the aftermath of the Civil War, the language makes no reference to its purpose. It is drafted broadly and it can be argued the words, “The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned,” gives the president the constitutional power to pay the country’s debts even if Congress refuses to do so.

Some have suggested that President Obama can simply direct to Treasury to continue to sell bonds so the debts can be paid.

Others argue the president could justify acting alone under his duty to faithfully execute the laws of the United States that includes the Fourteenth Amendment.

Still others theorize that the House, by not agreeing to increase the debt-ceiling, are acting in breach of Section 4; The debt has to be paid and they are “questioning” the process of paying the debt.

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