U.S. Constitution Credit: Public Domain photo

Utter the words “14th Amendment,” and most Americans know it as a Reconstruction act that guaranteed citizenship, particularly to Black Americans who had been enslaved.  But now it’s once again part of the current discussion, economically speaking, as a possible resort by President Biden to solve the debt ceiling crisis. 

On Wednesday, Biden got a surprise announcement from Sen. Bernie Sanders for him to invoke the amendment to avoid a default. 

“In my view, there is only one option. President Joe Biden has the authority and the responsibility under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to avoid a default,” Sanders wrote. “This is not a radical idea. Making sure that the United States continues to pay its bills regardless of whether the statutory increase in the debt ceiling is raised or not is an idea that has been supported by Republicans and Democrats.”

Sanders’ reasoning is that the proposed cuts by the Republicans passed in their debt limit bill last month would be a “disaster,” and, to his mind, equivalent to a default.  He insisted that Section 4 of the amendment, known as the public debt clause, must be utilized to “continue to pay its bills on time and without delay, prevent an economic catastrophe, and prevent huge cuts to healthcare, education, childcare, affordable housing, nutrition assistance and the needs of our veterans.”

In effect, the constitutional amendment authorizes by law the public debt and it “shall not be questioned.” At that time, it referenced debts incurred during the Civil War.

On Tuesday, the White House seemed to balk at exercising the amendment, fearful that it would create a constitutional crisis. Even so, Biden said last week from Japan, “The question is could it be done and invoked in time that it would not be appealed as a consequence past the date in question.”

That remains a question. 

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