Explainer: Does the 14th Amendment Say the Debt Ceiling is Unconstitutional?

As the fight over the debt limit rages on in DC, some have been questioning whether the whole concept of a debt limit might not be unconstitutional. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has implied that President Obama might be able to push through an extension of the debt ceiling based on an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In case you don’t remember off-hand which part of the Fourteenth amendment refers to the debt ceiling, here is the text of Section Four:

“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. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.”

Why, you ask, is there a conversation to be found about the validity of public debt in the 14th amendment in the first place? Yale law professor Jack Balkin told Firedoglake that the section originally addressed Confederate debt, but was expanded during debate “to prevent future majorities in Congress from repudiating the federal debt to gain political advantage, to seek political revenge, or to try to disavow previous financial obligations because of changed policy priorities.”

Several Republican members of congress have vowed not to vote to raise the debt limit unless the administration will agree to massive cuts in entitlements and services, with some even threatening a filibuster if it does pass the House. Many Republicans were elected on a platform of intransigent fiscal austerity, and could face opposition from the Tea Party in the primaries if they don't continue to hold the opposition.