The 14th Amendment Coup d'Etat

Constitutional Barriers

The major problem with pleading the 14th, so to speak, is the Constitution itself.

•        Article I Section 7.1 clearly states that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House.”

•        Article I Sections 8.1 and 8.2 say only Congress has the power “to pay the debts” and “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”

•        Section 4 of the 14th Amendment itself indicates that valid U.S. debt is only that debt that is “authorized by law."

Of course, to create a law, the Constitution requires concurrence of majorities in the House and the Senate. Thanks to veto-override power (Article I Section 7.2), a law doesn’t even require the president’s approval. The 14th Amendment did not overturn those sections of Article I. The final phrase in the first sentence of Section 4 (“shall not be questioned”) certainly didn’t negate an earlier phrase in the same sentence (“authorized by law”). In a nutshell, the power of the purse, both to expend and replenish, whether by taxation or borrowing, belongs to Congress, not to the president.

A Reagan Supply-Sider Flips

This makes Bruce Bartlett’s advocacy of the scheme even more puzzling…at first. You see, Bartlett was a domestic policy analyst in the Reagan White House, who actually helped write the Kemp-Roth bill of 1981 which put supply-side economics to the test by slashing the top marginal tax rates, among other things. The free markets passed the test with flying colors. So, in some ways, we have Bartlett to thank for the ensuing two decades of unprecedented American prosperity.

Somewhere on life’s journey, however, Mr. Bartlett careened off of the Laffer Curve. In 2009, he wrote a book subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and the New Way Forward." It garnered raves from Robert Reich, E.J. Dionne Jr., Andrew Sullivan, and other doyennes of the left. Bartlett has joined the church of latter-day Kenseyians. He has come to believe that his formerly beloved supply-side economics was a mere tactic, not a set of timeless principles. In other words, it worked in the 1980s, but we need something different now to meet the challenge of new market realities. In a word, we need Obamanomics, in all of its tax-funded stimulative glory.

Now, Bartlett says “a broad reading” of the 14th Amendment is justified, that practically every expense in the federal budget constitutes an indebtedness which “shall not be questioned," and that the president’s obligation to protect the credit of the United States is no less a duty than his obligation to guard the lives and property of all Americans. Bartlett tells MSNBC that if the government hits the debt ceiling during the congressional August recess, it would justify “the same kind of response that [Obama] exercises as commander in chief.”

Anti-Constitutional Stratagem

You don’t have to be a fan of the so-called "debt ceiling" to resist any attempt by the executive to usurp legislative power. In fact, you reasonably might pine for the pre-ceiling days when Congress had to authorize each new issuance of debt. At least that might force lawmakers to publicly grapple with the consequences of bloated government on a more regular basis.

But if the president should adopt this unconstitutional (really anti-Constitutional) 14th Amendment stratagem, it would up-end the Framers' system of checks and balances to an even greater degree than has misapplication of the “commerce clause” and the “necessary and proper clause” during the past seven decades. It would open the door to unlimited executive authority, the very threat against which the Framers sought to guard us. It would, in the language of the 14th, constitute an executive-led “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States of America. And as the amendment clearly states, we, the people, are not compelled to pay for those.

(Watch a discussion of this issue on PJTV's Trifecta)