Political Pistachio

Blog Home of the Writer and AM and FM Radio Host, Douglas V. Gibbs.
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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Debt Ceiling and the 14th Amendment

By Douglas V. Gibbs

I am wondering if I should add this as an honorable mention to my list of 25 Myths of the Constitution.

In June of 2012, Nancy Pelosi proclaimed that the 14th Amendment makes the federal Debt Limit unconstitutional.  According to the House Democrat Leader, Barack Obama could avoid the whole debt-ceiling showdown with Republicans by simply invoking the "obscure constitutional provision" in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. According to Pelosi, the statutory borrowing limit is inconsistent with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that "the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned."  Her suggestion comes a year after Bill Clinton said he'd use the 14th Amendment if he were Obama in a 2011 speech.

I wonder if she would have felt the same way during the presidential term of George W. Bush?  Remember, Senator Obama, and much of the rest of the Democrat Party, were voting against the debt limit raise, back then.  In fact, Barack Obama's exact words regarding the desire by the Bush administration to raise the debt limit in 2006 were, ". . . raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our Government’s reckless fiscal policies. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that 'the buck stops here.' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better."

The Summer of 2012 debt-ceiling fight went on without the use of the 14th Amendment, and the GOP compromised way beyond what they should have, but the fact that there was at least a fight over federal spending eased the minds of a few Americans.

Conservatives were proclaiming that the federal deficit, and the economic woes the United States was facing, to be a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Fast-forward to January of 2013, after a horrendous fiscal cliff deal that raises taxes $41 dollars for every $1 cut in spending (and the spending cuts are not really cuts, just reductions in what's planned to be spent in the future, which will never actually be reduced), another debt-ceiling showdown is on the horizon.  Representative Nancy Pelosi, true to her 2012 form, is calling for using the 14th Amendment, once again.  This time, however, she has other democrats, and the liberal media, jumping on the band-wagon too!

Surprisingly, President Barack Obama recognized how ridiculous the call for using the 14th Amendment was, and said through his Press Secretary, Jay Carney, "This administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the President the power to ignore the debt ceiling – period."  However, Barack Obama has added that there will be no haggling over the debt ceiling, either, laying blame for all of the spending on Congressional Republicans.

During all of this political theater, nobody stopped to ask if the call to use the 14th Amendment in this manner was constitutional, and what the "obscure constitutional provision" really means.

The 14th Amendment is the second of three Civil War Amendments.  The clause in question is at the beginning of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment. It 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."

The part that says "authorized by law" means spending is a legislative issue, by the way.  Remember, it is Congress that makes law, not any other part of government. . . or at least any other part of government is not supposed to be acting legislatively.

The clause attempts to resolve two problems.  Any debt created by the Confederate States during their rebellion will not be paid by anybody but those States, and any debt created by the Union will be honored and paid back by the taxpayers of all members of the United States, including those States being readmitted to the Union after the end of the war.  During secession, the Confederate States of America were no longer under the rule of law as provided by the United States Constitution.  That is why the Confederacy created their own constitution.  The debt of those breakaway States, then was separate from the nation under the Constitution, and therefore would be paid back separately.  However, under the Constitution, all of the States, as per this clause, are responsible for the nation's debt, including debt created by the war, so all members of the union will be a part of paying back that debt, despite the rumblings from The South about it.  In other words, that debt "shall not be questioned."

In a broader sense, if one wants to use today's debt as an example, what it would mean is that the United States will pay its debts, regardless of if that is being questioned by others.  However, that is not an allowance for the President to take a dictatorial power to bypass Congress, as Pelosi, some democrats, and the liberal media, is suggesting.

Besides, not raising the debt limit does not prevent America from paying its bills. It would force the United States to reduce some of its spending in other areas in order to make sure those bills get paid.

To bypass Congress is unconstitutional.  Spending must be appropriated by Congress.  It is a legislative function, and according to Article I, Section 1, all legislative powers belong to Congress.  Also, all bills raising revenue, according to Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, must originate in the House of Representatives.  This was a way to ensure that the people had control over spending, and that the federal government didn't spend without the okay of the people.

The dynamics of our government were different at that time.  The system has been changed by progressivism a number of times, one of the largest culprits being the 17th Amendment where the appointment of Senators to the United States Senate was changed to them being voted in by the general voting public.

During the Constitutional Convention, delegates from twelve of the thirteen States created the Constitution to act as a contract between the States and the new federal government, granting express powers to the federal government for the purpose of providing for the general welfare of the nation.  These powers were all connected to protecting, preserving, and promoting the union of States, while also preventing the federal government from infringing on State Sovereignty.  The States were to be the final arbiters of the Constitution, and one way they would be able to check the federal government was by being directly involved in the system.  This is why it takes three-quarters of the States to ratify an amendment, and why the U.S. Senate (which was the voice of the States in the federal government since Senators were appointed by the State legislatures during that time period) has advice and consent powers (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2) regarding the appointment of officers and judges, and why a treaty must be ratified by the Senate before it goes into force.

The general population, who were represented by the House of Representatives, however, were given the biggest tool of them all.  The House has the power of the purse strings.  By granting to the House of Representatives the sole authority to originate bills for raising revenue, the Constitution enabled the We The People to stop tyrannical funding and actions by simply defunding it.  Out of control spending, if the people through their representatives so desired, would not be a problem.

The voters were expected to be informed, and low-information voters did not vote, for only property owners were allowed to vote according to the rules in all of the States at that time.  Property Owners had skin in the game, paid property taxes, and were concerned about the issues.  The non-property owners were not as concerned about the issues, and their votes could only be won by gifts from the treasury. Such unethical devices by politicians were something the Founding Fathers wished to avoid.  Such schemes of leveling (redistribution of wealth) and a community of goods (socialism) were seen as despotic, dangerous, and a means of creating class warfare.  If the United States was to stand the test of time, massive spending that carries over to the next generation, and entitlement programs, would have to be things that were kept at bay.

This is not to say that the federal government borrowing money is not a good thing.  It was necessary, usually in time of war, and the founders realized that.  Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 says that the Congress has the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States.  Notice, however, that it is "Congress" that has that authority. . . which brings us back to the 14th Amendment.

Article 1, Section 1 grants all legislative powers to Congress.  Article I, Section 7 grants the authority to originate bills for raising revenue solely to the House of Representatives.  Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 gives the power to borrow money to the Congress.

The liberal democrats claim that the "validity of the public debt. . . shall not be questioned," even by Congress, and they are trying to use the 14th Amendment to support that claim.  The original intent of that provision, and the authorities granted by the Constitution in other sections, says otherwise.

This is, as always, an attempt by the statists to grab more power, even if they have to lie, and twist the Constitution, to do so.

Personally, I think the debt ceiling is a ridiculous concept. If the federal government only spent our money in a Constitutional manner, federal spending would only be about 5% of the GDP.  In the late 1800s, it was between three and four percent of the GDP.  Then, a limit wouldn't be necessary, because the spending would be within reason, and constitutionality.

Giving the President carte blanche on federal spending is not the way to go, based on the Constitution, and common sense.  Spending is the problem, not revenue.  The question is, when will we, and our representatives, take a queue from the Constitution, and demand that our money be spent in only a Constitutional manner?

It begins locally, and through our States.

The fight continues on.

-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary

Pelosi Says 14th Amendment Makes the Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional - Slate

Bill Clinton: I'd use 14th Amendment - Politico

Obama: Not Always a Fan of Upping Debt Celing - National Review

Fiscal Cliff Deal: $1 in Spending Cuts for Every $41 in Tax Increases - Breitbart

Senate Democrats Urge Obama to Act on Debt if Needed - Businessweek

Pelosi Would Use 14th Amendment for Debt Ceiling Raise - CBS News Video

Nancy Pelosi: Obama Should "Just Go Do It" and Use the 14th Amendment to Raise the Debt Ceiling - The Blaze

President Obama Backs Away from Invoking 14th Amendment on debt ceiling - MSNBC

Obama: No haggling on debt ceiling, can use executive action to tighten gun laws - Fox News

Reforming a Congress that Spends like teenagers - Fox News

Congressional Debates of the Fourteenth Amendment (Congressional Globe) - Scribd

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