Some House Democrats Urging President Obama to Violate the Debt Ceiling, Citing the Fourteenth Amendment

The AP reports (thanks to reader “Herb Spencer” for the pointer):

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of the Democratic leadership, said he told fellow Democrats that Obama should both veto any House GOP plan for a short-term extension of the debt ceiling and invoke the 14th amendment, which says that the validity of the nation’s public debt “shall not be questioned.”

The White House has rejected resorting to this tactic to keep the nation from defaulting, questioning its legality, but Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who chairs the Democratic caucus, said “we’re getting down to decision time” and “we have to have a failsafe mechanism and we believe that failsafe mechanism is the 14th Amendment and the president of the United States.”

Larson said Clyburn’s proposal on the 14th Amendment was met with applause by other Democrats at their meeting.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked about Clyburn’s proposal, said only Congress has the authority to extend the government’s borrowing authority. “The president does not have authority to raise the debt ceiling. It’s not a plausible way to address this problem and we do not think it is an option,” he said….

It seems to me that the White House is right on this and Reps. Clyburn and Larson are wrong, for reasons given by leading liberal constitutional law scholar Prof. Laurence Tribe (Harvard) here and here. You can read Prof. Tribe’s argument in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

[W]hat is the government to do if, come August 3, it does not have enough money to make all of the expenditures that Congress has required by law? The answer, I think, is that it must prioritize expenditures: some payments [i.e., basically payments other than interest payments on the national debt] simply have to be postponed until the Treasury has enough money to make them….

Other proponents of a constitutional deus ex machina have offered a more modest interpretation of the public debt clause, under which only actual default (as opposed to any action that merely increases the risk of default) is impermissible. This interpretation makes more sense. But advocates of the constitutional solution err in their next step: arguing that, because default would be unconstitutional, President Obama may violate the statutory debt ceiling to prevent it.

The Constitution grants only Congress — not the president — the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” Nothing in the 14th Amendment or in any other constitutional provision suggests that the president may usurp legislative power to prevent a violation of the Constitution. Moreover, it is well established that the president’s power drops to what Justice Robert H. Jackson called its “lowest ebb” when exercised against the express will of Congress.

Worse, the argument that the president may do whatever is necessary to avoid default has no logical stopping point. In theory, Congress could pay debts not only by borrowing more money, but also by exercising its powers to impose taxes, to coin money or to sell federal property. If the president could usurp the congressional power to borrow, what would stop him from taking over all these other powers, as well?