GW law professor Jonathan Turley seemed disinclined to want to push the Constitutional option on the debt limit, in an interview with Keith Olbermann last night. While acknowledging that “the language itself is very absolute… you cannot take steps to undermine the payment of debt,” he said that it wouldn’t be advisable to add a Constitutional dimension to an already bad set of policies.
He did, however, add one thing. He mentioned that Democratic members of Congress consulted him weeks ago about this idea. “They wanted to know the meaning of this line” in the 14th Amendment – “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payments of pension and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned.” Turley concluded that “the answer is that it’s not clear, it has not been tested… For a law professor who comes to watch the cars crash, it could be exciting. But I’m not too sure it’s good for the country.”
I’ve already discussed my view on whether or not it would be good for the country; here I part ways with Turley. But my sense is that this was always more of a theoretical argument, something that no Democrat would even think about pushing. Not true. Turley had Democrats coming up to him asking about this weeks ago. And a month ago, in front of a room full of journalists, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner read the 14th Amendment out loud to underscore a point he was making about the stability of the public debt:
At a Politico Playbook breakfast on May 25, Geithner was asked by host Mike Allen about the negotiations over default and the debt ceiling.
“I think there are some people who are pretending not to understand it, who think there’s leverage for them in threatening a default,” Geithner said. “I don’t understand it as a negotiating position. I mean really think about it, you’re going to say that– can I read you the 14th amendment?”
Geithner whipped out his handy pocket-sized Constitution. Allen tried to brush it aside. “We’ll stipulate the 14th Amendment,” he said.
“No, I want to read this one thing,” Geithner insisted.
“It’s paper clipped!” Allen observed, noting that Geithner’s copy of the Constitution was clipped so that it would open directly to the passage in question.
“‘The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payments of pension and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion’ — this is the important thing — ‘shall not be questioned,” Geithner read.
“So as a negotiating strategy you say: ‘If you don’t do things my way, I’m going to force the United States to default–not pay the legacy of bills accumulated by my predecessors in Congress.’ It’s not a credible negotiating strategy, and it’s not going to happen,” Geithner insisted.
So this is not really something that bubbled up from the fever swamps and isn’t taken seriously in Washington. The Treasury Secretary of the United States, regarded by everyone as the most important member of the Obama economic team, read the 14th Amendment out loud in front of reporters a month ago. Now, why it takes Ryan Grim to mention this a whole month later is a testament to the lack of understanding of this question to media figures.
But it shows that the Administration is fully aware of the tool. When asked yesterday whether the debt limit is Constitutional, President Obama just avoided the question. It was a three-part question and he only answered the other two parts. There’s an awareness at the highest levels that at the very least, an argument can be made, that there can be no questioning of the public debt – as a Constitutional matter. That’s a BFD.