How Do You Solve a Problem like the National Debt?

Something has to be done.

This is something.

Therefore, this has to be done.

Could the "debt crisis" be at least postponed? Apparently so:

According to The Bipartisan Policy Center, the Treasury will take in $172.4 billion in revenue next month. It only is obligated to pay $29 billion in interest on the debt. The Treasury also has to honor hundreds of billion in maturing securities. But for every security it pays off, the total debt the Treasury owes is reduced by an equal amount. So Treasury can borrow that money right back.

Meanwhile, the government has hundreds of billions in other assets. The U.S. owns $370 billion in gold. That would be more than enough money to cover all of the federal government’s scheduled $306.7 August spending. Geithner has refused to sell any of these assets. He told Congress that any sale of U.S. assets “would be damaging to financial markets and the economy and would undermine confidence in the United States.”

As damaging as not making interest payments on the debt?

Half-fast (or something like that) arguments have been offered that the president can just go ahead and pay the national debt unilaterally when and as due -- without causing Geithner to have a conniption fit -- because the Fourteenth Amendment gives him that power. Arguments have been advanced here to counter them.

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.

Claims that the Fourteenth Amendment authorizes the executive branch to ignore the debt limit are not only specious, they are ludicrous. They are reminiscent of the famous biblical quotation whimsically said to demand fratricide: "Cain slew Abel . . . . Go thou and do likewise."

The Fourteenth Amendment directive does permit the executive to do that if you read it upside down in dim light through a fog of silliness. Even then, it permits it only upon the passage by the Congress of appropriate legislation. The amendment provides, in relevant part,

Section 4. 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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. (emphasis added)

The Fourteenth Amendment vests authority in the Congress, by appropriate legislation, not the president unilaterally, to enforce its provisions. Nor can such legislation be effective if vetoed by the president unless the Congress overrides his veto, just as the executive has no constitutional authority to enforce it without legislation. Hence, the provisions of Article I respecting the powers of the Congress are not affected, including these:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; To borrow Money on the credit of the United States; . . . (emphasis added)

Although the Fourteenth Amendment is not inconsistent with, and therefore does not displace, Article I, it does displace all inconsistent provisions of the original Constitution as well as all inconsistent amendments ratified before it was. Any amendment ratified subsequently to the Fourteenth, to the extent inconsistent with it, displaces the Fourteenth. Statutes also displace previously enacted federal laws inconsistent with them, but not (of course!) provisions in the Constitution which, as many still recognize, is the supreme law of the land.

As an experiment in reductio ad absurdum, consider whether the Fourteenth Amendment to some extent eliminates the First Amendment provision guaranteeing freedom of speech. Why not?