an unanticipated consequence of
Jack M. Balkin
Jack Balkin: jackbalkin at yahoo.com
Bruce Ackerman bruce.ackerman at yale.edu
Ian Ayres ian.ayres at yale.edu
Mary Dudziak mary.l.dudziak at emory.edu
Joey Fishkin joey.fishkin at gmail.com
Heather Gerken heather.gerken at yale.edu
Abbe Gluck abbe.gluck at yale.edu
Mark Graber mgraber at law.umaryland.edu
Stephen Griffin sgriffin at tulane.edu
Bernard Harcourt harcourt at uchicago.edu
Scott Horton shorto at law.columbia.edu
Andrew Koppelman akoppelman at law.northwestern.edu
Marty Lederman msl46 at law.georgetown.edu
Sanford Levinson slevinson at law.utexas.edu
David Luban david.luban at gmail.com
Gerard Magliocca gmaglioc at iupui.edu
Jason Mazzone mazzonej at illinois.edu
Linda McClain lmcclain at bu.edu
John Mikhail mikhail at law.georgetown.edu
Frank Pasquale pasquale.frank at gmail.com
Nate Persily npersily at gmail.com
Michael Stokes Paulsen michaelstokespaulsen at gmail.com
Deborah Pearlstein dpearlst at princeton.edu
Rick Pildes rick.pildes at nyu.edu
Alice Ristroph alice.ristroph at shu.edu
Neil Siegel siegel at law.duke.edu
Brian Tamanaha btamanaha at wulaw.wustl.edu
Mark Tushnet mtushnet at law.harvard.edu
Adam Winkler winkler at ucla.edu
My piece on President Obama's options in the debt ceiling crisis-- ranging from jumbo coins to section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment-- is on CNN.com, Here's the part about the most likely scenario if no deal is reached, and the role that section 4 would play:
Like Congress, the president is bound by Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which states that "(t)he validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned." Section 4 was passed after the Civil War because the framers worried that former Southern rebels returning to Congress would hold the federal debt hostage to extract political concessions on Reconstruction. Section 5 gives Congress the power to enforce the 14th Amendment's provisions. This does not mean, however, that these provisions do not apply to the president; otherwise, he could violate the 14th Amendment at will.
Section 4 requires the president not to put the validity of the public debt into question. If the debt ceiling is not raised in time, there will not be enough incoming revenues to pay for all of the government's bills as they come due. Therefore he has a constitutional obligation to prioritize incoming revenues to pay the public debt: interest on government bonds and any other "vested" obligations.
What falls into the latter category is not entirely clear, but a large number of other government obligations -- and certainly payments for future services -- would not count and would have to be sacrificed. This might include, for example, Social Security payments.
To be sure, the president could keep paying Social Security if he could keep the total amount of debt constant by redeeming bonds in the Social Security trust fund for cash and immediately selling new bonds to replace them. But the money coming in may not be able to keep pace with the money going out. Even if he tries his best, the president may not be able to pay every Social Security check in full on time.
If the president stopped paying parts of Social Security or other government programs that the public relies on, we would have a partial government shutdown. This would quickly put enormous pressure on Congress to raise the debt ceiling to make it possible to resume normal government operations.
Thus, even if Social Security and other social safety net programs are not part of "the public debt," under Section 4, failure to pay them promptly and in full will probably lead to a political solution to the debt crisis within a week or so. The closest precedent is the 1995 government shutdown precipitated by the Republican-controlled Congress' battle with President Bill Clinton.