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The 14th Amendment Coup d’Etat

Will Obama trash the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling? (Watch a discussion of this issue on PJTV's Trifecta)

by
Scott Ott

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July 7, 2011 - 12:00 am
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In your face, Tea Partiers!

Left-wing pundits like Keith Olbermann (Current TV), Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC), and Katrina vanden Heuvel (Washington Post) practically drool at the recent claim that President Obama can unilaterally declare the debt-ceiling law unconstitutional, break off negotiations with Republicans, and order the Treasury secretary to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars without consulting Congress.

O’Donnell revels in the Eureka! moment as he realizes Obama doesn’t need to negotiate with stubborn Republicans, he can just dictate terms thanks to this “nuclear option.” Vanden Heuvel thinks the president should threaten to deploy it ASAP, “as a last resort,” to save those who have become dependent upon government for their comfort and care.

What has these leftists all atwitter? Believe it or not, it’s a novel application of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make President Obama commander in chief of the economy as well as the military. Olbermann loves the “charm” of “stealing the Tea Party’s act” and turning their darling Constitution into their enemy.

Under the 14th-Amendment scenario, the president could tell the House speaker: “Take a hike, Boehner. I’m not cutting a penny of federal spending.” Then he’d whip out the national credit card and run up our balance beyond the current $14.5 trillion. Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner would sit hangdog helpless in his office, gaze despondently at his gloomy poll numbers, and plan a lot more fishing trips with his grandchildren in 2013 when Obama is re-inaugurated, and Boehner is retired.

The Genesis of Pleading the 14th

The idea for the allegedly constitutional ploy appeared first on April 28, in a faux speech in The Atlantic, penned for the president by one Garrett Epps, author of a 2007 book on the 14th Amendment. Epps teaches “creative writing for law students” at the University of Baltimore, and apparently practices what he teaches.

Coincidentally, the very next day Bruce Bartlett’s column in the Fiscal Times appeared, advancing the same concept. These two apparently unconnected men sowed the seeds of this blooming progressive meme. By May, no less a figure than Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pulled out a pocket Constitution during a Politico-sponsored panel discussion, and read aloud a single sentence from the amendment.

“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.”

Geither actually paused before the final phrase, and said, “This is the important thing…shall not be questioned.” Over the past two months, “14th Amendment” has become a veritable battle cry among those seeking to maintain the tax-borrow-and-spend status quo.

Let’s take a brief look at the foundations of this revolutionary notion, evaluate its validity, and examine its implications.

Garrett Epps, in his fantasy presidential address, accurately points out that the 14th Amendment was framed to prevent Southerners (read Democrats) from grabbing a congressional majority, then using it either to force the federal government to pay off Confederate debt and compensate former owners of emancipated slaves for their losses, or to refuse to pay off obligations that the U.S. government had racked up in pay and pensions for Union soldiers. The amendment would prevent a sour-grapes faction from wrecking the credit of the reunified nation. Thus far, all sensible readers agree.

The pretend speechwriter then imagines his boss saying:

The national debt must be paid in full, on time, regardless of any political division within our Congress. That is what the Framers intended: to set the debt obligations of our country beyond the reach of Congressional meddling. Those obligations will not be questioned as long as I am president of the United States.

However, should the president ever decide to speak such words in public, it would constitute another “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States of America — a 14th-Amendment coup d’etat. As of this writing, the White House has refused to comment on the concept, insisting there’s no “Plan B” if talks with Republicans fail.

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