The 14th Amendment: A Debt Ceiling Game-Changer

In a thought-provoking New York Times op-ed, Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe, a Constitutional law professor, has changed his stance on using the 14th Amendment to tackle the looming threat of a national debt ceiling crisis, posed by the likes of Kevin McCarthy.

Tribe challenges us to reconsider our perspective on the debt ceiling issue. Instead of debating whether the president has the authority to override the debt limit statute, we should be asking whether Congress can use an arbitrary dollar limit to manipulate the president and the administration.

The answer, according to Tribe, is a resounding “no.” He asserts that the only person with the power to say no to the debt ceiling is the president. President Biden should firmly inform Congress that the United States will pay all its bills as they come due, even if the Treasury Department must borrow more than what Congress has allowed.

Biden should remind Congress of his constitutional obligation to prevent the country from defaulting on its debts for the first time in history. The president’s duty to execute the laws extends to all spending laws passed by Congress, including those that didn’t consider the borrowing limit.

By taking this position, Biden wouldn’t be usurping Congress’s lawmaking power, its power of the purse, or the Supreme Court’s power to interpret the law. Instead, he would be fulfilling his constitutional duty, even if it means temporarily disregarding the borrowing limit enacted in 1917.

Tribe argues that choosing the lesser of two evils when no other options exist is the essence of constitutional leadership, not tyranny. Ignoring the debt ceiling until Congress addresses it is a far lesser evil than neglecting lawful claims against the Treasury.

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment prohibits the president from permanently defaulting on our debts. Even if McCarthy and his enablers force some creditors to wait, it wouldn’t erase our obligations. Instead, it would merely replace them with IOUs, essentially creating another form of debt.

If Congress allows economic catastrophe to pile on top of a constitutional crisis without addressing the debt ceiling, the only way forward is through clear-headed leadership from the president. The 14th Amendment may just be the key to navigating the treacherous waters of the debt ceiling crisis and ensuring America’s financial stability.