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Bill Clinton’s Specious Debt Ceiling Argument

9:01 AM, Jul 25, 2011 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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NPR reports, “Former President Bill Clinton said if faced with default, he would single-handedly raise the debt ceiling using the 14th Amendment and he’d do it ‘without hesitation, and force the courts to stop me.’”

Bill Clinton closeup at dedication of WWII memorial, May 2004

The relevant part of the 14th Amendment (1868) — the middle of the three Civil War-era amendments written (principally) to secure the rights of the freedmen — says, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law...shall not be questioned.” As the recent debates in Washington have shown, no one is questioning it. It then reads, “But neither the United States nor any State” shall pay the Confederacy’s debts, nor pay compensation for anyone’s slaves having escaped or having been emancipated. Finally, in the next section, it reads, “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

It is hard to imagine how this language could conceivably be read as empowering the president to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally.  It says nothing of the president. It stipulates that Congress is empowered to enforce the amendment’s provisions. And it in no way changes the fact that the president is not vested with the power of the purse.

In Federalist #58, James Madison writes, “The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

The New York Times writes, “On Friday, Mr. Obama rejected [Mr. Clinton’s] idea, though not in categorical terms.

“‘I have talked to my lawyers,’ Mr. Obama said.  ‘They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.’”

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