Debt Ceiling Powers Reinterpreted?

Recently, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner publicly implied that the 14th Amendment’s fourth section authorizes the president to unilaterally raise the nation’s debt ceiling without congressional approval.

For context, Section 4 of the 14th Amendment reads:

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.

Naturally, this has quickly resulted in rebukes from Republicans in the Congress but what is truly amazing is that this notion has reportedly garnered at least some consideration among its Democrat members, led at least nominally by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York.  As ludicrous as the notion itself is, I am not altogether surprised that Schumer is willing to consider such an obviously inappropriate approach to government – after all, this is the man we must presume has never actually read (or at least understood) the Constitution even though he took an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance to” it.

All that said, this is probably (and hopefully) just political gamesmanship by the administration designed to coerce and/or threaten the Congress into raising the debt ceiling soon via a thinly veiled ultimatum.  Naturally, $14.3 trillion in public debt is just not enough – what we really need and want as a citizenry is yet more debt.  Clearly, that is the answer to all of our individual and collective woes.  Who cares if two and three generations’ worth of Americans will likely never be able to secure their maximum individual prosperity potential because of a combination of massive debt obligations that they had no choice in amassing and inevitable inflation that will further erode the fiat dollar’s purchasing power.  How many of our children’s and grandchildren’s dreams will wither in a wasteland of what might have been, all because we were too short-sighted and self-absorbed to do the correct – which is often the most difficult – thing by them (and ourselves)?  But I digress somewhat…

Issues such as this typically run so much deeper than simply the particular subject that frames them.  Much like gun politics, privacy issues, the judicial system, and numerous other instances when the government decides to do (or consider) whatever it deems necessary or appropriate, notwithstanding what the Constitution actually allows and/or empowers, this issue could further tarnish the critical relationship between the government and the willing governed.  I have probably said this a thousand times, but the Constitution is not just a superficial historic document – it is a social compact, a legal contract between the government and the people whose consent is the very foundation for the authority that the government possesses.  If the Constitution goes ignored by one party, particularly the one which wields such potentially devastating power over the individual, it renders the agreement itself worthless – even if done in the name of necessity (genuinely or otherwise).  Without deference to the framing agreement, the government cannot justly wield any power because the aforementioned authority is based on nothing substantive or willingly accepted.  By default, it enters into a state of despotism in the absence of a mutually entered compact, a state defined solely by might makes right.

Though the context was considerably different*, Alexander Hamilton illustrated in Federalist No. 25 (1787) the criticality of a government that in practice recognizes and reveres the sovereign agreement between a nation and its people:

Wise politicians…  know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedence for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all, or is less urgent and palpable.

James Madison echoed the importance of maintaining reverence for such a framing agreement, or treaty, between a just government and its citizenry in Federalist No. 43 (1788):

It is an established doctrine on the subject of treaties, that all the articles are mutually conditions of each other; that a breach of any one article is a breach of the whole treaty; and that a breach, committed by either of the parties, absolves the others, and authorizes them, if they please, to pronounce the compact violated and void.

This is clearly not how benevolent nations and their societies persevere.

*Hamilton was attempting to convince the people of New York (ironically) to accept the then-proposed Constitution as the supreme framework for a federal republican union, one which would specifically empower and restrict federal authority, as mutually agreed appropriate, to prevent a government of men from employing subjective and inevitably fallible discretion in the exercise of their duties.  If only he could see us now…

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