President Joe Biden says he believes he can raise the debt ceiling unilaterally under the 14th Amendment even without GOP support.
“I’m looking at the 14th Amendment as to whether or not we have the authority [to raise the debt ceiling without congressional backing]—I think we have the authority,” Biden said during a May 21 press conference at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.
Specifically, Biden is referencing a little-known portion of the 14th Amendment which reads: “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.”
Particularly important to Biden’s argument is the final clause, “shall not be questioned.” Some argue that this means that the president can act unilaterally to ensure that the nation does not default, even without Congress.
Part of the so-called “Civil War amendments,” this provision was included in the 14th amendment as a means to ensure that newly reconquered southern states would not question the debts of the United States—particularly debts it picked up in waging war on the southern states.
While some have proposed that it could be used more expansively, to allow the executive to bypass Congress in raising the debt ceiling altogether, no U.S. president has ever used this method to raise the debt ceiling. Biden himself acknowledged that it was unclear if the issue could move through the courts in time to avoid a default.
“The question is, could [this expansive use of the 14th amendment] be done and invoked in time that it would not be appealed, and as a consequence past the date in question and still default on the debt,” Biden said. “That is a question that I think is unresolved.”
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has previously dismissed calls to use the 14th amendment to raise the debt ceilings as “one of the not good options,” suggesting it could trigger a constitutional crisis if used.
For months, Republicans and Democrats have been gridlocked over the debt ceiling, which describes the maximum amount of money the U.S. Treasury can borrow. Both chambers of Congress have to approve a debt ceiling increase for it to move forward. Without a debt ceiling increase, the United States will default for the first time in history, an outcome that would have catastrophic effects on the value of the dollar.
Yellen has said the United States could default as early as June 1 if no progress is made on raising the debt ceiling.
Biden’s May 21 comments are his strongest yet on potentially using the 14th Amendment to bypass Congress.
Nevertheless, the president expressed optimism that this move wouldn’t be necessary, as all leaders involved have insisted again and again that the nation would not default.
The president’s remarks on Sunday came as the two sides appeared stalled in negotiations. Biden on Sunday sharply criticized what he described as Republicans’ “extreme positions,” saying that much of what the GOP has proposed is “simply, quite frankly, unacceptable.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hit back, accusing the White House of “moving backward in negotiations.”
“Unfortunately, the socialist wing of the Democrat Party appears to be in control—especially with President Biden out of the country,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter.