In a press conference this week, President Obama explained why he did not believe there was a "14th amendment solution" available to him to resolve the question of debt default on October 17th. His argument is simple. Were he to undertake something so ambiguous as a solution, the same damage would be done because it would trigger a constitutional crisis and create far too much doubt about what happens if his actions were unconstitutional.
That doesn't mean the 14th amendment doesn't belong in this discussion. It most definitely does, but it's been pointed at the wrong player. Congressional Republicans are dangerously close to shirking their constitutional duties by placing the full faith and credit of the United States in question.
Have Republicans forgotten that they too must abide by the Constitution?
The document is explicit in its instruction to America's federally elected officials – make good on the country's debts. "The validity of the public debt of the United States," the 14th Amendment states, "shall not be questioned."
This is not some arcane biblical reference that needs to be translated from scraps of parchment. In fact, its purpose and intent are fairly well documented.
The amendment is the product of a post-Civil War Congress that wanted to be sure the country would not be saddled with Confederate debt, and that the debts of United States would be honored. Then, as now, this promise written into the Constitution offered creditors confidence that lending to America – indeed, investing in America – would be safe.
"Every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress," argued Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Republican supporter of the amendment.
Now, however, conservatives opposed to a debt-ceiling increase argue that the 14th Amendment applies to old debt, not debt that will be taken out in the future. Of course, that is true. Also true, however, is that the debt America sells today is used to make payments due on already assumed liabilities – the very debt protected by the Constitution. (Americans by and large don't understand this either, thinking erroneously that proceeds from new debt sales are used to pay for future spending.)
Old-school Republicans – the traditional, "mainstream," and pro-business ones (remember them?) – disagree with the set now running the House. Bruce Bartlett, former official under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, on Tuesday took issue with the GOP's willful disregard for the gravity of the situation at hand. "What we know for certain is that we will be in uncharted waters," Bartlett wrote in The New York Times' Economix blog. "And given that United States Treasury securities are essentially the foundation upon which the entire world financial system rests, those are dangerous waters indeed. Only a fool would enter them if they could be avoided."
This is what isn't being said. By pushing us closer and closer to the edge of the debt ceiling abyss, Congressional Republicans may already be in violation of the 14th amendment. It's time to remind them that they don't get to pick and choose the parts of the Constitution they like. The entire document applies to their actions in this debacle, and they should be held accountable.