Some have said that the 4th clause of the 14th amendment is grounds for invalidating the debt ceiling. I don’t agree with that claim for the following reasons.

Here is the text of the 4th clause of the 14th Amendment:

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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

In summary, “The validity of the public debt… authorized by law… shall not be questioned.”

An established rule of construction is to construe a sentence in an article of text in a way that gives the rest of it meaning. There are two sentences in the 4th clause that are strung together with the word “but” that informs the nature of meaning of the two. The second sentence basically says that neither the United States, nor any individual State, can assume debt incurred by the former Confederacy, declaring it void. If we’re declaring Confederacy debt void while making the rebels pay the pensions of military personnel who quelled the rebellion, it is likely a good idea to close all the holes by saying that the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned. In other words, don’t even bother trying squirm out of paying it.

In regard to the debt ceiling, there isn’t any question regarding the validity of public debt or whether it should be paid; although I could pose a question which I will get to in a moment. The debt ceiling merely says that we can have only so much debt and then we can’t issue any more. It is about depth of debt, not its validity. If the debt ceiling is reached, bills still come in; but they can’t be paid until the Treasury has funds to pay them by other means than issuing more debt.

It’s amazing to me the lengths some will go in order to stretch the meanings of things to meet their immediate needs without thinking about the consequences. I could raise a valid question about the validity of public debt and spending that would turn this argument on its ear and make them regret they even brought it up.

For that, I’ll focus on the part of the first sentence in the 4th clause describing public debt that is authorized by law and jump to laws which are valid authorizations of spending and laws which aren’t. It is pretty easy; because if we follow the established rule of construction in the broadest sense and include Article 1, Section 8 in that construction, we find that the legal authority of Congress is limited to a list of 17 different subject matters. So if we are to assume that valid public debt is authorized by law, the only part of the public debt that can be valid is that which Congress has the authority to make pertinent law. Additionally, it means that once the debt ceiling is reached and we bring clause 4 of the 14th Amendment into play, all of the extra-constitutional buying up of State police power is what has to be defaulted because these are not the result of valid exercises of Congressional powers, even if States have acquiesced, accepted and cooperated with any and all of them. It covers things like Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, public education, the DoT, DoE, &c, &c… The entirety of the commerce clause overreaches comes crashing down around our ears.

People making the argument that the 4th clause of the 14th Amendment means that the Treasury can ignore the debt ceiling in order pay debt incurred by invalid exercises of Congressional authrotiy are delusional. My counterargument is quite impractical, and I would never suggest those debts not be paid. But at least it is based on solid reason rather than delusion.

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