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Can President Obama Raise The Debt Ceiling On His Own?

Some legal scholars are making the case that President Obama should raise the debt ceiling on his own, without congressional approval. They are basing their argument on the 14th Amendment, which was passed after the Civil War to make sure the Union paid its debts.

Section 4 of the 14th Amendment says: “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.”

Emily Bazelon, legal affairs editor for Slate and senior research fellow at the Yale Law School, agrees with that argument.

“The president has emergency powers he should invoke to prevent default,” Bazelon told Here & Now. “Also, when choosing among different mandates from Congress, i.e., spending the money they budgeted to spend, and then not raising the default ceiling, he can go with the first obligation. But before that, first and foremost, Congress has an obligation under the 14th amendment not to call the nation’s debt into question. The president should be strongly making that argument. He has not been.”

The White House disagrees. Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week, “Look, our view is the Constitution gives Congress — not the president — the authority to borrow money, and only Congress can increase the debt ceiling, which is why it’s time that they do their job and raise the debt ceiling, authorize the Treasury to pay the bills that Congress racked up.”

Joseph Reisert, associate professor of constitutional law at Colby College, tells Here & Now he does not think that’s right.

“As a practical matter, were the president to say well, we’ve clearly hit this moment of national emergency. It appears that the inaction of Congress is going to call into question our credit worthiness, therefore I on my own authority are going to tell the Treasury to keep selling bonds. Well suppose the president does that and you’re an investor? Do you really want to buy those bonds not explicitly authorized by law in the ordinary sense. You might get your money back but you might not.”

The debate continues.


  • Joseph Reisert, associate professor of constitutional law at Colby College.

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