Three leading constitutional experts joined the National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen this week to discuss one of the most unique topics in constitutional law: the 14th Amendment and the debt ceiling.
Sean Wilentz from Princeton University, Ilya Shapiro from the CATO Institute and Neil H. Buchanan from George Washington Law offered differing viewpoints on several controversial subjects: Does the original intent of the 14th Amendment force Congress to prevent a debt default or does it empower the President to take extraordinary measures without congressional approval? Or does the 14th Amendment’s public debt clause make Congress the true “holder of the purse strings” when it comes to raising the debt ceiling?
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The 14th Amendment argument has been in the public arena since 2011, when former President Bill Clinton said in an interview that he would have cited the 14th Amendment in any debt confrontation with Congress. That sparked a response from President Barack Obama that didn’t concur with Clinton’s logic. “I have talked to my lawyers. They are not persuaded that that is a winning argument,” Obama said in July 2011.
Those comments fueled an academic debate that has continued since the 2011 debt ceiling crisis was resolved.
Some experts, like President Obama’s mentor at Harvard, Laurence Tribe, support the White House’s position. But others believe the President either has the total power to deal with the debt ceiling without Congress -- or absolutely no power to take action. Others believe government has the duty to control spending, within the guidelines of the Constitution, so last-minute confrontations over the debt don't occur.
The arguments also focus on the intent of two groups: the Founding Fathers whose ideas created the Constitution in 1787, and the politicians who crafted the 14th Amendment in the Civil War’s aftermath in 1866.
Buchanan, Shapiro and Wilentz made compelling arguments on all these points and more in this 60-minute discussion.
You can form your own opinions as you listen to our audio podcast in the player below.
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Also, if you are interested in learning more about our guests, Ilya Shapiro testified before Congress just prior to our event about the "Stand Your Ground" law (video here on C-SPAN); Neil H. Buchanan's new book, The Debt Ceiling Disasters, covers some of his important talking points; and Sean Wilentz wrote two recent op-eds for The New York Times and Politico that express some salient points he made in the above discussion.
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