14th Amendment: No Need to Raise Debt Ceiling? Really?

Last Updated Jul 6, 2011 10:03 PM EDT

The debate over raising the debt ceiling has taken a turn for the weird. Some Democrats, apparently eager to find any contrivance that will let them avoid spending cuts, have seized upon a snippet of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that they say allows - even requires - the federal government to borrow more if the debt ceiling isn't raised by the Aug. 2 deadline.

Here is the relevant wording: "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned."
As Stan Collender writes in his "Capital Gains and Games" blog, invoking the 14th Amendment would be no easy feat:

"At the very least, there would be fire-and-brimstone speeches from House and Senate Republicans and GOP presidential candidates denouncing the president and Treasury secretary for borrowing without congressional approval. Efforts to block President Barack Obama's agenda, including all nominations, would be likely, and fiscal 2012 appropriations, which absolutely require congressional approval, would be jeopardized."
Even so, some Washington liberals are warming to the idea. Katrina vanden Heuvel, a columnist for The Washington Post, writes that President Obama could use this "constitutional option" as a way around what she calls, with no hint of irony, the "extremist and absolutist positions" of congressional Republicans. "Obama could use a plain reading of that text to conclude - statutory debt ceiling or not - that he is constitutionally required to order the Treasury to continue paying America's bills."
Filling in the Blanks
A plain reading? More like a fanciful and deliberately obtuse reading. Here's what Section 4 of the 14th Amendment says in full:

"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."
I'm no constitutional scholar, but it seems that the amendment, passed in 1868, was intended to guarantee payment of pensions to former Union soldiers and to make equally sure that federal funds were not used to make payments to former Confederate soldiers.

Context? What Context?
Given the penchant of some Democrats to trivialize the Constitution as an archaic document whose relevance diminishes as the years roll by, it would be cheeky of them to edit out the very clear context of this passage in the 14th Amendment and treat it as the revered, everlasting wisdom of our forefathers.

But let's do exactly that for the sake of argument. Even if it does make Obama "constitutionally required to order the Treasury to continue paying America's bills," what part of the amendment requires the issuance of more debt to do it?

If honoring U.S. debt obligations is paramount, as the 14thers suggest, then they can implore the president and Treasury secretary to make that their first priority as they allocate tax and other revenues. It would then fall to them to set further priorities, funding some programs out of existing revenues and cutting or eliminating others. Debts paid, no new borrowing required.

The Republicans' intransigence when it comes to discussing tax hikes has attracted widespread criticism, perhaps with some justification, but they're reacting to what they see as a similar stubbornness on the part of Democrats to consider long-term spending cuts. If Democratic leaders were to try out 14ther sophistry with a straight face - the Constitution says we have to borrow more if we are forbidden from borrowing more - it would show that Republicans are right to feel exasperated.