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


Home / Can Obama Unilaterally Raise the Debt Ceiling via the Fourteenth Amendment?
obama thinking, image by Pete Souza.  President Barack Obama leans back in his chair as he listens to the discussion at a Long-Term Fiscal meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Does President Obama have the power to act alone, and raise the debt ceiling? Image by Pete Souza

Others Opine ‘No You Can’t’

Others argue the president cannot act unilaterally because the Constitution gives the power to tax, spend and borrow to Congress. Therefore the president has no power to order more borrowing or spending.

Although the president took an oath to faithfully uphold the law, so did members of Congress.

One interpretation of Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment is that it requires the president to use treasury funds to pay off the existing debt from monies that will still flow into the treasury. However, President Obama has no power to raise the ceiling and keep spending on new causes; only Congress can do that.

Although not raising the debt-ceiling would have a detrimental effect on the country’s credit rating and the value of the dollar, more uncertainty would result if the president acted alone, outside of his enumerated powers.

If the deadline is passed, Congress can vote to increase it at any time. But unilaterally raising the debt-ceiling would lead to legal action and a greater period of uncertainty in financial markets.

The Administration’s Position on Raising the Debt-Ceiling

In the opinion of the White House Counsel’s Office, the president does not have the power to unilaterally increase the debt-ceiling; only Congress can authorize that action.

Huffington Post filed an FOI request with the Department of Justice regarding an opinion on the legality and constitutionality of unilateral action. While the DOJ would not release the opinion, citing presidential and attorney client privilege, they acknowledged that they had sought an opinion.

In the end, there are just as many opinions as there are lawyers. If Obama wants to act unilaterally, he can always find an opinion that backs his position.

Does all this constitutional and legal stuff matter? Not really. In the end, Obama’s going to do what Obama wants to do.


Courier-Journal. Action hero moves for debt limit solution? (2013). Accessed October 9, 2013.

CNN Money. Why the 14th Amendment matters in the debt-ceiling crisis. (2013). Accessed October 9, 2013.

Huffington Post. Obama DOJ Still Won’t Explain Opposition to 14th Amendment Option. (2013). Accessed October 9, 2013.

National Review Online. Contra Wilentz: The Fourteenth Amendment Constrains Presidents. (2013). Accessed October 9, 2013.

Legal Information Institute. 14th Amendment. (2013). Accessed October 9, 2013.

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