Out-of-control national debt threatens the economy, and now is menacing the Constitution as well. There is a growing chorus of left-wing voices urging President Obama to sidestep the Congress and raise the debt ceiling with the stroke of a pen. Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Representatives James Clyburn of South Carolina and John Larson of Connecticut, all claim to have discovered a “failsafe” mechanism in Section 4 of the 14th Amendment that “the validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.” This passage, they imagine, gives Mr. Obama the authority to pile on debt by executive order without having to bother consulting Congress. “I urge everybody to get their little Constitution and read it,” Senator Boxer said. Well maybe the senator needs to read her copy a little more closely.
Liberals like to think of the Constitution as an evolving, elastic or flexible document, but in this case they are simply making it up. The president has no authority unilaterally to saddle the country with more debt. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” This is a specific, enumerated power given to Congress alone. The debt provision of the 14th Amendment was originally intended simply to ensure Federal debts accrued during the Civil War and deny any claims for compensation on debt entered into by the Confederate States. It was not a sweeping and unprecedented grant of executive power that has lain dormant for a century and a half. And the part of the Section 4 that liberals like to edit out is the passage that states debt must be “authorized by law,” not by executive diktat. And if this does not convince them, Section 5 states clearly that “the Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” In fact the debt provision of the 14th Amendment means the exact opposite of what leftists are trying to torture out of the text.
But simple logic and common sense never stop the left when it comes to forcing strange new meanings into the Constitution. They understand what the Framers and their successors intended, they simply don’t care. For them the debt ceiling crisis is an opportunity for the executive branch to claim vast new powers that would fatally subvert the Constitution’s design. A president who could unilaterally and without check burden the people of the United States with debt would have no incentive not to pile it on. And the liberal spendthrifts in Congress would never have to worry about funds being available to underwrite their various redistributive schemes and shovel-ready projects. Apart from destroying the economy and breaking the bonds of Constitutional rule it is the perfect solution. But it would be better for America if members of Congress stopped fantasizing about magic-wand solutions to the country’s problems and instead just did their job. And leave interpreting the Constitution to people who read all the words, not just the few scraps they like.