See a pattern? In each case, there was a Democrat in the White House. Republicans haven’t been the only party to engage in political gamesmanship on the issue. As Mr. McConnell reminded Mr. Biden in a recent letter, Democrats (including then-Senator Biden) under President George W. Bush opposed raising the debt limit. But Democrats always retreated before the brink. Yet for several years now, many Republicans appear to have convinced themselves that default is no big deal. The facts suggest otherwise.
Most industrialized countries do not face this melodrama. The first debt limit dates to the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This legislation was, and remains, a hangover of the congressional supremacy that prevailed from 1865 until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. What everyone disregarded was that there was already a constitutional provision addressing the debt.
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment helped establish the terms of the American victory over the Confederacy. Section 4 of that amendment states that “the public debt of the United States, authorized by law,” shall “not be questioned.”
Some may hold that a president invoking it to include bond issuance would violate Congress’s Article I appropriation powers. But the 14h Amendment would require all necessary steps to redeem bonds and issue bonds to replace those being rolled over, as well as uphold the sanctity of bonds in the Social Security and other trust funds. This is hardly a blank-check executive power over appropriations, but it would stave off a credit collapse because of congressional hostage taking.
No president has invoked the 14th Amendment in response to a debt-ceiling vote. But in 2011, when President Barack Obama faced Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling, an ex-president, Bill Clinton, said that, rather than leave the country vulnerable to default, if he were in office, he would raise the debt ceiling using the 14th Amendment “without hesitation and force the courts to stop me.” (Mr. Obama ultimately reached an agreement with Republicans to raise the debt limit and reduce the deficit.)
Admittedly, invoking the 14th Amendment is not an ideal solution. It has never been tested in court. In my estimation, the Supreme Court would likely dismiss a legal objection as a dispute between two branches, and the debt-ceiling vote might go the way of many other conflicting or redundant statutes — something that is on the books but either ignored or treated as hortatory. The situation with this issue is untenable, since Republicans seem to care not about the actual debt so much as about using debt-ceiling crises under Democratic presidents for political advantage.
Why should we take it for granted that constitutional war powers must be so broadly construed that a president has sole authority to start a global nuclear war while appropriation powers are so narrow that the president dare not save the country from financial disaster?