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What Debt Limit? Plan B Is the 14th Amendment

Bruce Bartlett:

What Debt Limit? Plan B is the 14th Amendment: I now feel even more strongly that the Fourteenth Amendment trumps the debt limit. There is strong support for this position in an article by George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz. Writing in the Tulsa Law Journal (“Beyond Balanced Budgets, Fourteenth Amendment Style,” 33:2, Winter 1997, pp. 561-612), he concludes that any government action “making uncertain whether or not a debt will be honored is unconstitutional.” As Abramowicz explains:

A debt does not become valid or invalid only at the moment payment is due. A debt’s validity may be assessed at any time, and a debt is valid only if the law provides that it will be honored. Therefore, a requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments…. Moreover, there is no such thing as a valid debt that will nonetheless not be honored.

This means that the very existence of the debt limit is unconstitutional because it calls into question the validity of the debt. So would any other provision of law. That is a key reason why Congress created a permanent appropriation for interest payments at the same time that the Fourteenth Amendment was debated....

It goes without saying that provoking a constitutional crisis over the debt limit is a bad idea, but a debt crisis would be worse. At a minimum, the Fourteenth Amendment greatly strengthens the president’s hand in getting the debt limit increased in a timely matter. He should not be afraid to use it.