Have Republicans forgotten that they too must abide by the Constitution?
The document is explicit in its instruction to America's federally elected officials – make good on the country's debts. "The validity of the public debt of the United States," the 14th Amendment states, "shall not be questioned."
This is not some arcane biblical reference that needs to be translated from scraps of parchment. In fact, its purpose and intent are fairly well documented.
The amendment is the product of a post-Civil War Congress that wanted to be sure the country would not be saddled with Confederate debt, and that the debts of United States would be honored. Then, as now, this promise written into the Constitution offered creditors confidence that lending to America – indeed, investing in America – would be safe.
"Every man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress," argued Sen. Benjamin Wade, a Republican supporter of the amendment.
Now, however, conservatives opposed to a debt-ceiling increase argue that the 14th Amendment applies to old debt, not debt that will be taken out in the future. Of course, that is true. Also true, however, is that the debt America sells today is used to make payments due on already assumed liabilities – the very debt protected by the Constitution. (Americans by and large don't understand this either, thinking erroneously that proceeds from new debt sales are used to pay for future spending.)
Old-school Republicans – the traditional, "mainstream," and pro-business ones (remember them?) – disagree with the set now running the House. Bruce Bartlett, former official under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, on Tuesday took issue with the GOP's willful disregard for the gravity of the situation at hand. "What we know for certain is that we will be in uncharted waters," Bartlett wrote in The New York Times' Economix blog. "And given that United States Treasury securities are essentially the foundation upon which the entire world financial system rests, those are dangerous waters indeed. Only a fool would enter them if they could be avoided."
So set aside the tired debate over whether President Obama should unilaterally raise the debt limit. Instead remember that Congress too is bound by that amendment.
What happens if Congress doesn't act? Some opine, probably correctly, that the House will impeach Obama if he moves unilaterally on the debt ceiling after the House declines to act. But others argue that if the House does nothing, and Obama refuses to step in, impeachment would then indeed be appropriate.
"Obama should be impeached if the Congress allows a default and he does nothing," said Sean Willenz, a Princeton University history professor who has argued the merits of 14th Amendment action. "The president has taken a solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. If he does not act in response to a blatant violation of the Constitution, then he will have violated his oath, and deserve to be impeached."