The public indebtedness of the United States is under the guardianship of the U.S. Constitution. Congress may not repudiate it. If Congress does – through its actions and/or inactions – the President of the United States must step in to ensure that the national debt is paid.
Section 4 of the 14th Amendment addresses the national debt. It provides, in relevant part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” If the public debt cannot be questioned, it cannot be challenged and, therefore, must be paid.
The purpose of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment is to ensure our creditors that the “full faith and credit” of the United States is sound, that no Congress may default on the national debt, that it will be paid. As Senate pro tempore Benjamin Wade, one of the drafters of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, explained,
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“[E]very man who has property in the public funds will feel safer when he sees that the national debt is withdrawn from the power of a Congress to repudiate it and placed under the guardianship of the Constitution than he would feel it if it were left at loose ends and subject to the varying majorities which may arise in Congress.”
When ratified in 1867 Section 4 of the 14th Amendment became the Supreme Law of the Land like the rest of the Constitution. All three branches of our government are bound by it and must exercise their authority consistent with it.
The President of the United States has a sworn duty to uphold the laws of the United States, including the laws authorizing our country’s indebtedness and dependent on that authorization for them to remain in full force and effect. The president also has the sworn duty to uphold the Constitution, including, of course, Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits Congress from repudiating the indebtedness authorized by those laws.
If the situation arises where Congress uses its power of the purse to nullify its constitutional duty to pay the public indebtedness, the president may step in and use his constitutional authority to prevent that from happening.
Maurice F. Baggiano