The claim—partly silly, partly dangerous—that President Obama may raise the debt limit unilaterally without the approval of Congress is again being raised. I addressed it previously here. Now it has been further debunked in a Wall Street Journal op-ed authored by David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey.
Under the Constitution, only Congress may incur debt. The exclusive power of the legislature to do so is one of the central parts of our governmental system, pre-dating the Constitution by centuries, and with its roots in colonial and British practice.
Those seeking this indefensible extension of presidential power argue that the existing level of entitlement benefits are “debt” and that the Fourteenth Amendment requires it to be paid.
But as Messrs. Rivkin and Casey point out, projected benefits from entitlement programs are legally non-contractual largess, and the Supreme Court has said as much.
The Fourteenth Amendment provides that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, . . . shall not be questioned.” But, of course, debt issued in excess of the statutory debt limit is not “authorized by law.” Even if the President attempted to issue debt on his own authority, it would not be valid and, for that reason, probably wouldn’t find many takers.
One minor quibble: The Rivkin-Casey article contains a typographical error. It identifies the congressional power to incur debt as “Article I, Section 2.” The correct citation is Article I, Section 8, Clause 2.