National debt

  • July 11, 2011

    As Congress and President Obama continue their negotiations on a deficit reduction deal with a looming Aug. 2 deadline, politicians and scholars have continued to question whether the Constitution offers a solution if Congress should fail to act.

    The idea that a statutory limit on the federal debt could be unconstitutional if it caused the U.S. to default on payments initially gained traction following an April column in The Atlantic in which University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps envisioned an address President Obama might give announcing his refusal to observe the statutory debt ceiling on constitutional grounds.

    Several senators have since endorsed the idea that U.S. default on our debts could violate Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and a vibrant discussion has developed among academics and commentators. Many have agreed that Congress’s behavior may be unconstitutional. But they have also suggested that the President is unlikely to, and probably shouldn’t, invoke this constitutional argument and flout the will of Congress.

    In a series of posts for Balkinization, Yale law professor Jack Balkin has explained that although he believes Section 4 “was designed to prevent what the Republican leaders of Congress are currently doing, it is not clear that anyone has standing to force Congress to live up to its constitutional duty.”  

    In the extreme and unlikely scenario that all other options for preventing a default on the public debt had been exhausted, he continues, the President could act pursuant to “emergency powers” inherent in the presidency, possibly taking action of “very dubious legality” because the President acts when no one else will act.

    Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe also argues in an op-ed in The New York Times that the Constitution “only grants Congress — not the president — the power ‘to borrow money on the credit of the United States.’”

    “Only political courage and compromise, coupled with adherence to traditions that call upon Congress to fulfill its unique constitutional duty, can avert an impending crisis,” Tribe writes.

    In another post for Balkinization, University of Texas at Austin law professor Sandy Levinson suggests that Obama take the alternative route of educating the public “about the unconstitutional behavior of his Republican adversaries.” But, “if there is anything we seem to know about him, it is that he will be extremely reluctant to do so."

    He continues: