What is the difference between the Godfather and a lawyer? A lawyer makes an offer you cannot understand.
THE PREAMBLE is clear about the ultimate end of the Constitution—“to promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” But some politicians major in missing the point. For how is that to be done if the economy is destroyed?
The Founders were not confused. THE DEBATE OVER DEBT MANAGEMENT VERSUS DEFAULT WAS SETTLED IN THE BEGINNING. According to Article VI, Clause 1, “All debts contracted and engagements entered into, before the adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.” And James Madison dismissed “...the pretended doctrine that a change in the political form of civil society has the magical effect of dissolving its moral obligations.” (The Federalist Papers, No. 43, JM on “All debts and engagements”) For under the Articles of Confederation, as Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton noted in the First Report on Public Credit, “ …(T)he last seven years have exhibited an earnest and uniform effort, on the part of the government of the union, to retrieve the national credit, by doing justice to the creditors of the nation; and that the embarrassments of a defective constitution, which defeated this laudable effort, have ceased.”
Hamilton gave force and effect to Article VI, Clause 1, which makes honoring our commitments, meeting our obligations, being true to our word a duty, not an option. His measures, which were supported by President Washington, made meaningful the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States” because he provided a way “to pay the debts...of the United States.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 & Article I, Section 8, Clause 1; emphasis added) He established the good faith of the nation and gave us our good name. Thus, Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment—“The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned”—is a reaffirmation of Article VI, Clause 1 that was to overcome “the embarrassments of a defective constitution,”—the Articles of Confederation—“which defeated this laudable effort”; and, therefore, all debts and engagements entered into shall be valid against the United States under the Constitution.
The Second Liberty Bond of 1917 created the debt ceiling, “an aggregate limit on federal debt as well as limits on specific debt issues.” (The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, Summary, Congressional Research Service, November 2, 2015) But the statute is curious because it sets up conflict with the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States” and the duty “to pay the debts...of the United States.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 & Article I, Section 8, Clause 1; emphasis added) Yet, according to Article VI, Clause 2, the Constitution is “the supreme law of the land” and all acts are to be made “in pursuance thereof.”
When “the preparatory plans of finance” became comprehensive under the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, the debt ceiling was transformed from a curiosity to a glitch. (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 72) The President was required to submit a budget that was to be approved by Congress. Later, because Nixon used impoundment as an item veto instead of a management tool, the process was modified by the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. But the debt ceiling remained.
Nevertheless, no one doubted the grass is green and the sky is blue. The debt ceiling was pro forma, before the curtain was raised to put on a performance. Bad reviews should have cancelled the show, but somehow it goes on and on off Broadway to eye rolls, sighs, and expletives. For what is drama to some is traumatic to others.
Ronald Reagan promised to cut taxes, raise defense spending, and balance the budget. Thus, two plus two equals five—and the sky is green and the grass is blue. But, while they battled for the GOP nomination, George Bush the Elder called it “voodoo economics.” And it has been easier to cast a spell since Reagan got in the White House and ended the fairness doctrine.
Now, whenever there is a Democratic President, Republicans come out of the backroom in lockstep and say, “The deficit is too big and the national debt is astronomical. You are not cleaning up our mess fast enough.” Meanwhile, the Democrats have the truth on their side and cower. Heaven forbid the President act on the Constitution that makes clear THE DEBATE OVER DEBT MANAGEMENT VERSUS DEFAULT WAS SETTLED IN THE BEGINNING.
Today, the crisis is over, but the problem remains. For clipping crabgrass does not attack the roots. Instead, prepare the ground to make a difference: THE DEBATE OVER DEBT MANAGEMENT VERSUS DEFAULT WAS SETTLED IN THE BEGINNING.
Copyright 2023 Marvin D. Jones. All rights reserved.
[The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, Congressional Research Service, November 2, 2015]
[A Long Train of Abuses and Usurpations]
[Notes for the May 9, 2023 Debt Ceiling Meeting]