See a model? In each case, there was a Democrat in the White House. Republicans have not been the only party to engage in a political game on the issue. As Mr. McConnell reminded Mr. Biden in a recent letter, Democrats (including then-Senator Biden) under President George W. Bush opposed increasing the debt ceiling. But Democrats have always backed down from the brink. Yet for several years now, many Republicans seem to have convinced themselves that the flaw is not serious. The facts suggest otherwise.
Most industrialized countries do not face this melodrama. The first debt limit dates from the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This legislation was, and remains, a hangover from the Congressional supremacy that prevailed from 1865 until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. What everyone ignored was that there was already a constitutional provision dealing with debt.
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment helped establish the terms of America’s victory over Confederation. Article 4 of this amendment states that “the public debt of the United States, authorized by law”, must “not be called into question”.
Some may argue that a president invoking it to include the issuance of bonds would violate the appropriation powers of Article I of Congress. But the 14th Amendment would require whatever steps are necessary to buy back bonds and issue bonds to replace rolled-over ones, as well as to maintain the sanctity of Social Security bonds and other trust funds. It’s hardly a blank check executive power on credits, but it would prevent a credit collapse due to congressional hostage-taking.
No president has invoked the 14th Amendment to settle the debt ceiling. But in 2011, when President Barack Obama encountered Republican opposition to raising the cap, a former president, Bill Clinton, said that rather than leaving the country vulnerable to default, it was he was in power then, he would relieve him using the 14th Amendment “without hesitation and forcing the courts to arrest me”. (Mr. Obama finally came to an agreement with the Republicans to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit.)
Of course, invoking the 14th Amendment is not an ideal solution. It has never been tested in court. In my opinion, the Supreme Court would most likely dismiss a legal objection as a two-branch dispute, and the debt ceiling vote could go along with many other conflicting or redundant laws – something that’s on the books. but either ignored or treated as exhortation. The situation with this problem is untenable, as Republicans seem to care less about actual debt and more about using the debt ceiling crises under Democratic presidents for political purposes.
Why should we take for granted that constitutional war powers must be interpreted so broadly that a president has the sole power to start a global nuclear war when the powers of appropriation are so narrow that the president dares not not save the country from financial disaster?