Why the 14th Amendment Is Being Cited in the Debt Ceiling Debate

WASHINGTON — Faced with an impasse over raising or suspending the nation’s debt limit, some White House officials are looking to a clause in the 14th Amendment to ensure the United States does not default on its debt.

The amendment, adopted after the Civil War, conferred citizenship to former slaves — and contains a more obscure section on public debt. Here is a brief history of the 14th Amendment and an explanation of its provisions, including why it’s now being talked about in the White House.

Considered by historians to be a milestone for civil rights, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution extended citizenship to former slaves. It also guaranteed that the right to due process and equal protection under the law applied to both federal and state governments.

The expansive amendment is the most cited amendment in lawsuits, according to the Library of Congress.

Section 1 of the amendment established that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside” and that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Another provision, known as the Disqualification Clause, was more obscure until the events of Jan. 6, 2021. Some have argued that the clause, outlined in Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, bars anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding public office.

Now, the standoff over the national debt has renewed debate over Section 4 of the amendment, known as the public debt clause.

After the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, lawmakers sought to set out the terms of the Confederacy’s surrender and the rebellious states’ re-entry into the Union.

The 13th Amendment’s formal abolition of slavery also meant that the size of delegations from former Confederate states would increase, even as the states passed discriminatory “Black codes” and prevented former slaves from voting. Reconstructionist Republicans in Congress sought to address these issues by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed citizenship and equal protection for former slaves.

Although Republicans had enough votes to override a veto by President Andrew Johnson, some remained concerned that the protections in the law were not strong or permanent enough, and began seeking a constitutional amendment.

A joint committee on Reconstruction then drafted what would become the 14th Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified two years later.

The 14th Amendment includes a provision that protected public debt held by the federal government, and prohibited payment of debt held by the Confederate states.

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned,” the clause reads.

That section, historians say, was added because of fears that if former Confederate states were to regain political power in Congress, lawmakers might repudiate federal debts and guarantee Confederate debt. Reconstructionist Republicans also thought that the clause would discourage loans to future insurrectionists.

“Southerners were used to having their way in Congress — they had dominated the institution from 1787 until secession in 1861 — and many believed that when their representatives arrived in House and Senate, they would be able to tear up the nation’s i.o.u.s. Section 4 was the response,” Garrett Epps, a legal scholar, has previously written.

Some legal scholars contend that the public debt clause overrides the statutory borrowing limit, which is set by Congress and can be lifted or suspended only with lawmaker approval.

The United States hit that cap on Jan. 19 and on Monday, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen warned that the federal government could run out of cash to pay its bills by June 1 unless it was able to borrow more money.

The Biden administration is discussing whether the 14th Amendment compels the government to continue issuing new debt to pay bondholders, along with Social Security recipients, military personnel and others, even if Congress fails to lift the limit before the so-called X-date.

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