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Bill Clinton would raise debt ceiling, bypass Congress

July 19, 2011|By James Oliphant
(Olivier Douliery/Abaca…)

Bill Clinton says if he were president, he would not hesitate to raise the debt-ceiling himself under authority he argues is granted by the U.S. Constitution.

The two-term Democrat, who squared off with Republicans during two government shutdowns, contended in an interview Monday that the 14th Amendment allows for the president to ensure the nation’s debt is covered. He said he would “force the courts to stop me.”

“I think the Constitution is clear, and I think this idea that the Congress gets to vote twice on whether to pay for [expenditures] it has appropriated is crazy,” Clinton said in a talk with Joe Conason of the National Memo.

Whether the 14th Amendment does, indeed, provide the president with the power to unilaterally raise--or ignore--the debt ceiling has been the subject of fierce debate among legal scholars. The language of Section 4 of the amendment states that the “validity of the public debt . . . shall not be questioned,” leading Clinton and some advocates to argue that the executive branch can take steps to ensure that the nation does not default on its obligations.

But others, including liberal scholar Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School who once taught President Obama, contend that the amendment means that Congress, which holds the power of the purse, is under a constitutional obligation to cover its past appropriations by extending the nation's borrowing authority.

“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,” Tribe wrote in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.

But that is not a universal opinion. Other scholars argue that the debt ceiling itself is a violation of the 14th Amendment because it allows Congress to play “political games” with the nation’s credit. And there are some, like Clinton, who believe that Obama could essentially declare a national emergency and raise the debt ceiling under Section 4 of the 14th amendment.

"The president can go on television on July 30 (or whatever the practically last possible moment is) and say that he has been advised by (some of) his lawyers that the Constitution is indeed not a suicide pact and that Section 4 does in fact authorize him to take whatever steps are necessary to leave the national debt 'unquestioned,'" wrote Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas, on the Balkinization legal blog.

The Obama administration has shown little willingness to consider that option, however. The top lawyer for the Treasury Department wrote the New York Times to say "the Constitution explicitly places the borrowing authority with Congress, not the president," and that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner believes "Congress has an obligation to ensure we are able to honor the obligations of the United States."

White House spokesman Jay Carney told USA Today on Tuesday that raising the debt ceiling unilaterally is "not an option."

But that hasn't stopped some conservatives from being fearful that the president could wind up doing it anyway if Congress fails to strike a deal before Aug. 2. One, Rep. Tim Scott of South Carolina, said at a "tea party" meeting earlier this month that such a move by Obama could be an "impeachable act."

He said it would result "in the biggest war of all time."

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