Friday, July 8, 2011

what's the Constitution among friends?

I'm always intrigued when people unearth little-known sections of the Constitution and force us to reexamine new aspects of our foundation document. [I do it myself. I'm particularly fond of Article IV's guarantee of a "Republican Form of Government" -- why the capital R? -- and Article VI's requirement that  state officials and lawmakers have to take a oath to support the federal Constitution. This forced opponents of ratification like George Mason, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe change positions in order to continue in public life.]

I had never noticed the 14th amendment's section 4 on public debt until recently, and at first I saw it as a neat fallback for the government if lawmakers failed to increase the debt ceiling. I also felt that it would be politically unwise for the Obama administration to use right away, without further negotiations and efforts to reach a public consensus on the wisdom of such a remedy.

Now I'm persuaded that the Constitution cannot be stretched that far. Harvard Law School's Larry Tribe  makes the case in the New York Times today. The 14th amendment might permit paying debt without congressional obstruction, but it does not allow the President to create new debt on his own. Since much debt is simply rolled over into new instruments when the older ones mature, that is where the debt ceiling law -- and the Constitution  -- bite.

So it's back to the negotiating table, with our fingers crossed.

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