The PJ Tatler

Geithner cites the 14th amendment to justify blowing past the debt ceiling

This would be quite a gambit from the Treasury Sec who has presided over the fastest debt run-up in US history.

“I think there are some people who are pretending not to understand it, who think there’s leverage for them in threatening a default,” Geithner said. “I don’t understand it as a negotiating position. I mean really think about it, you’re going to say that– can I read you the 14th amendment?”

Geithner whipped out his handy pocket-sized Constitution. Allen tried to brush it aside. “We’ll stipulate the 14th Amendment,” he said.


Geithner read part of it on the air. The 14th Amendment is a Reconstruction-era amendment. The clause Geithner cites deals with debt incurred during the Civil War, and says:

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.

Some of our Con Law folks can help me out here, but that doesn’t strike me as a blank check for public debt and isn’t directly relevant to the debt ceiling. It’s on the one hand a statement on the validity of the nation’s debts, and on the other hand a rejection of the Confederacy’s debts, and specifically bans the US government from compensating slave owners who lost their slaves as a result of emancipation. This amendment is, remember, part of the overall reconstruction of the Union after the Civil War, so the history and original intent is very important to understanding its purpose (unless you’re a liberal). In other words, I don’t think that amendment means what Geithner thinks it means.


Update: Commenter GBM directs our attention to Section 5 of the 14th.

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

That says Congress has the legal power to enact a debt ceiling, no?

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