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Opinion | The Constitution Has a 155-Year-Old Answer to the Debt Ceiling


The 14th Amendment, added to the Constitution after the Civil War, has recently made a comeback, mainly because the Supreme Court has targeted past decisions, particularly Roe v. Wade, used it to protect Americans’ liberties. The Amendment remains the most important addition to the Constitution since the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Its brilliant first part established the principle of birthright citizenship and forbade states from denying equal protection by law to any person, laying the groundwork for many of the rights Americans are entitled to. enjoy.

Long-forgotten provisions of the 14th Amendment suddenly called for enforcement. Part Two provides for a reduction in the amount of representation allotted to states that deny any “male citizen” the right to vote. (Today, this penalty would also apply to disenfranchisement of women.) Even at the height of the Jim Crow era, when millions of African Americans were prevented from voting, the penalty still has never been performed. But with many states severely restricting the right to vote, it may be time.

Section Three prohibits anyone from taking an oath to support the Constitution and then participating in or encouraging “revolt” from public authority. January 6, 2021 events in focus new attention of this provision, which may apply to insurgency participants who have previously held military, political or judicial positions, including former President Donald Trump.

Then comes Part Four, which offers a way out of the current stalemate over raising the debt ceiling. “The validity of the public debt of the United States,” it stated, “will not be questioned.” What are the people who wrote, debated, and ratified this article trying to achieve? This section arose out of political conflicts over how to finance the Civil War. To pay the colossal costs of war, Congress printed legal paper money (“greenbacks”), raised taxes to unprecedented highs, and authorized the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds at interest. Nearly all laws permitting the issuance of bonds stipulate that the government will buy back the gold notes. An exception is the law regarding “fifty-year-old” bonds, which are redeemable in 5 years and payable in 20, which does not refer to people who have lent money to the government by buy these bonds will be repaid.

According to historian Irwin Unger, this scrutiny led directly to “a decade of tense and exasperating conflict.” The Democrats sought to score political points by demanding the return of the 500 in banknotes (which had greatly depreciated in value), not gold. They emphasized that it would constitute a huge unearned profit, for banks and large investors who bought these bonds with greenbacks in return for the gold from the government. “Who asked us to change the Constitution for the benefit of bondholders?” Senator Thomas Hendricks of Indiana asked when the amendment was being debated. “Why give them this special assurance?”

Republicans point out that much of the benefit of the gold payments will be enjoyed by ordinary Americans, who bought them from a small army of dealers deployed by financier Jay Cooke. They emphasized that the inviolability of the national debt was as much the moral legacy of the Civil War as emancipation itself.

The idea of ​​paying US$50 in greenbacks has been closely identified with “Gentleman George” Pendleton, descendant of a prominent Virginia family and Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1864. , who hopes to head straight for the White House. . The so-called Pendleton Plan entered the Democratic Party’s national platform in 1868 in the face of stiff opposition not only from Republicans but also from Wall Street-attached Democrats, such as the financier August Belmont, the representative of the Rothschild banking family in the United States, who naturally preferred to be paid in gold rather than paper money.

Part Four is the Republican response. While the language is certainly inappropriate (certainly Congress could find a better wording than declaring it illegal to “question” the validity of the national debt), the context history makes its purpose clear. In the Reconstruction Act of 1867, Congress began the nation’s first major test of interracial democracy, granting the right to vote for African-American men in all Confederate states. South before, except for Tennessee. This prompted Republicans to control governments across the South. But the Republicans feared that at some point in the future the former Confederates might return to power there. Their congressional representatives could join Northern Democrats in denying all or part of the national debt while honoring the Confederacy’s debt (a possibility the latter was denied by Part Four). expressly prohibited).

Representative James Ashley, Republican of Ohio, declared: “The nation must be “safe from the domination of traitors.” The 14th Amendment will help accomplish these goals. Regardless of what one might think of Civil War fiscal policy, the language of the amendment is imperative, not permissive — the validity of public debt “will not be questioned.” Today, more than a century and a half after the amendment was ratified, this promise is no longer considered a “special guarantee”; it is an essential attribute of a modern economy.

Our Constitution is not self-enforcing. The 14th Amendment ends by empowering Congress to implement its provisions. But if the current House of Representatives shirks this responsibility, pushing the nation into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, then President Biden should act. on his opiniontake steps to ensure that the federal government meets its financial obligations, as required by the Constitution.

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