By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
– 14th Amendment, Section 4 to the United States Constitution
JACKSON – A plain reading of the United States Constitution could lead to the conclusion that it would be unconstitutional for Congress not to approve a bump in the debt ceiling so that Uncle Sam could pay his bills.
After all, there is hardly any language in the Constitution that seems clearer. The debt, including those things related to the Civil War that had just been fought when the amendment was adopted, shall not be questioned.
Each member of the House and Senate takes an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Surely, Congress would not neglect its constitutional duty. But If Congress does neglect its Constitutional duty, then it would be up to the president, who also takes an oath to uphold the document upon which our country was built, to step in and continue to make sure our bills are paid.
Of course, there seems to point of view – perhaps a prevailing one, even by President Barack Obama – that the language does not really mean what the language says. In other words, those bills, already enacted into law by Congress cannot be paid in full if the debt ceiling is not raised.
Go figure – only in Washington.
I am no constitutional scholar, but I thought I learned in ninth grade civics that Congress controls the purse strings. But when Congress does pass a law spending money, then it is up the executive to carry out that expenduture. I have never seen anything in the Constitution giving Congress the authority not to pay the nation’s debt.
I consider myself fairly informed on national political events, but I have to admit that the issue of the debt ceiling – and the need to increase it from time to time to pay the bill – was never on my radar until the current scenario where the country is running dangerously close to default.
As it turns out, the debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since 1962 – all within my lifetime – 18 times during President Ronald Reagan’s term and 10 times since 2001.
So I guess I just wasn’t paying attention those other times. Actually, it was not a big deal those times.
But this time fiscal conservatives are using the debt ceiling as an excuse to put a curb on federal spending, which sounds like a good thing on the surface. But in reality, to not raise the debt ceiling is not the same as controlling spending. Those bills are the results of laws passed by Congress – when Congress was under the control of both Republicans and Democrats. To not raise the debt ceiling does not mean those laws go away.
To put it in private sector terms, not raising the debt ceiling is not the same as making an overt decision not to go to the store to purchase a new suit of clothes, the latest cell phone or a shiny new car because you can’t afford those things.
It is the same as going to the store to purchase those clothes, cell phone or car and then saying, “I am not going to pay for it.”
I would think fiscal conservatives would frown on that. Heck, every honest hard-woking individual should find that option unacceptable. And I would go a step further to say if it’s not unconstitutional, then it should be.
To get out debt under control is a worthy goal. How that is done is and should be debated.
But to not raise the debt ceiling does not accomplish that goal. In fact, it would put the president in the untenable position of having laws passed by Congress mandating his executive branch to make certain expenditures – for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Park Services, highway construction and maintenance, the military and a whole host of other items – but at the same time not providing him the funds to make those payments.
Where I come from, the name for people who would do that is not Republican or Democrat, or Tea Party, it is deadbeat.
Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (601) 353-3119.