Hot New Democrat Argument: The Debt Ceiling Is Unconstitutional


The battle lines for the big debt ceiling fight in Congress are coming into focus, as the latest doomsday deadline approaches next month.  Those who signed the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge demand substantial federal budget cuts, firm spending caps, and a Balanced Budget Amendment in exchange for any increase to the debt ceiling, making a desperate stand for fiscal sanity in the face of insolvency and ruin.  In fact, influential Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has stated that GOP presidential candidates must sign the pledge, if they expect his support.

The Democrats, meanwhile, have come up with a novel new strategy for getting around the debt ceiling and indulging in unlimited deficit spending: declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional.

The argument goes that Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment declares:

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.” (emphasis mine)

How do you get from saying the “validity of the public debt shall not be questioned” to asserting that Congress has the right to rack up an infinite amount of debt, with the 14th Amendment becoming a chainsaw that shreds all legislation designed to restrain spending? 

Basically, the statutory debt ceiling can only apply to spending on legislation that existed before it was put in place – about five years ago in the case of the ceiling we are about to crash into.  All subsequent legislation automatically overrides the debt ceiling, making it utterly meaningless, because the 14th Amendment requires that public debt incurred through legislation must be funded.

Why have you never heard this argument before?  Because there’s never been a challenge to irresponsible spending as strong as the one liberals face today.  They’re serious about exploring this, too.  As Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) explained to the Huffington Post, “I don’t think, as of a couple weeks ago, when this was first raised, it was seen as a pressing option. But I’ll tell you that it’s going to get a pretty strong second look as a way of saying, ‘Is there some way to save us from ourselves?'”

Well, actually, Senator, the American people have been desperately looking for a way to save themselves from you.  If you push this argument, you’ll give them a strong incentive to redouble their efforts.  I don’t think the Fourteenth Amendment-means-limitless-spending crowd has thought the implications of their stance all the way through, or how it will sound to a public deeply concerned about the insolvency of our bloated government.  Here’s a hint, fellas: you could shorten your position to “Let them eat cake!” and it would produce roughly the same response.

The “living Constitution” is a fascinating thing.  When it stands in the way of government growth and power, it’s a silly, moth-eaten old document that no one should take seriously.  Time magazine just published an error-filled screed asking if the Constitution still matters, and concluding it doesn’t count for all that much any more…

… except when the political class wants to roll the Constitution up, and smack uncooperative citizens across the nose with it.  Then it becomes sacred, or at least the politically useful parts of it do.  The “living Constitution” becomes an unstoppable, undead monster, shambling ever forward toward a larger State.

Forcing “free” people to buy a government-approved health care product – except for those granted waivers by the monarchy – is perfectly Constitutional, but passing a law to restrain deficit spending supposedly is not.  Thus does an instrument designed expressly to restrain the behavior of government become a cudgel used to beat down its citizens.  The Constitution began as the shield of American liberty, but by the time your children begin paying their taxes, they will discover it has been hammered into a set of shackles that can never be broken.