The debate over raising the federal debt ceiling has driven some liberals into a fit of despair. On Wednesday, Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said if Congress forwards a debt-ceiling extension bill to the White House that isn’t to the president’s liking, he should veto it and raise the debt limit by executive order. “If that’s what lands on his desk, a short-term lifting of the ceiling, the debt ceiling,” Mr. Clyburn said, “he should sign an executive order invoking the 14th Amendment to this issue.” The congressman was referring to a provision that the “validity of the public debt of the United States… shall not be questioned.” The move, however, would be rule by executive fiat.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this plan for Congress; it removes the legislative branch’s responsibility to grapple with a hard question. It’s the lazy way out. If President Obama possesses this extraordinary power, why is Congress going through the torturous and contentious process of crafting a bipartisan, bicameral compromise bill to send to the Oval Office? Just let Mr. Obama sign the executive order, and everyone can enjoy a less stressful weekend with a brand-new credit line.
Fortunately, this supposed presidential power doesn’t exist. Proponents of the “magic wand” solution need to read Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, particularly the first sentence: “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.”
The part of Section 4 that quickly disposes of Mr. Clyburn’s argument is the phrase “authorized by law.” Any plain reading of the article shows it decrees the exact opposite of what Mr. Clyburn and other constitutional magicians are advocating. It doesn’t say authorized by executive order, ukase or diktat, but only authorized by law. As Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution clearly states, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” That leaves no room for Mr. Obama to go it alone.
Literal reading, logic and the established definition of words don’t stop liberals from forcing whatever they want into the Constitution. The 14th Amendment in particular has been interpreted in ways its authors would scarcely recognize, let alone approve. Even the addition of Section 5, “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article,” doesn’t deter those who wish to hand Mr. Obama a new, unprecedented and clearly unconstitutional grant of power. If the president has the power to act unilaterally to make law, it means the end of constitutional rule.
If Congress were doing its job, America wouldn’t be subjected to dangerously radical ideas like this. Ultimately, the decision will rest with Mr. Obama. If a debt-ceiling bill comes to his desk, the Constitution says he may sign it, not sign it, or veto it. If he chooses to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling by decree, he will be acting outside the Constitution that he took an oath to preserve, protect and defend. It not only would be an impeachable offense, it would sunder the very bonds of constitutional authority.