Is the Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional?

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The Constitution states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law….shall not be questioned.” Bruce Bartlett suggests that this trumps the debt ceiling, which means the president can simply ignore Congress if he wishes and keep spending money even after the debt ceiling has been reached. To back this up, he quotes George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz:

A requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn’t come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget. The government is required to dedicate its tax revenue first to paying off any debt that’s due, but once that’s done the Constitution is silent. If the debt ceiling has been reached, and there’s not enough money left to issue Social Security checks or buy more aircraft carriers after current debts have been paid, then Social Security checks get reduced and aircraft carriers get put on hold. The constitutional argument for ignoring the debt ceiling would only come into play if for some reason things got to the point where it literally interfered with paying off current bondholders. We’re not even within light years of that happening.
 

I don’t really like this conclusion, and I’d like to see the statutory debt ceiling go away entirely. It’s an archaic budgetary vestige that makes no sense at all anymore. Still, it exists whether I like it or not, and I don’t really see how it offends the Constitution as long as creditors keep getting paid.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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