Thoughts on the current conflict over the debt ceiling

“The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” From a merely etymological perspective, this Constitutional prescription is non-negotiable.

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Debt Ceiling

The debt ceiling debate is, in my opinion, much more straight-forward and simple to argue for from a Constitutional perspective than the gun control debate. Let’s get right to the Constitutional clause in question, namely Amendment XIV, Section 4, which reads in part:

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

If there is one thing I learned from countless courses in philosophy and critical thinking, not to mention my dealings with contracts, it’s that certain words carry certain inarguable meanings. In the case of this Constitutional Amendment, the words are very clear. If one simply takes out the additional clauses from the middle part, and just focuses on the root meaning of the sentence, it reads: “The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” From a merely etymological perspective, this Constitutional prescription is non-negotiable. Case in point, the word “shall”. This is not an arguable term in the English language. It does not carry the same loose obligation as, say, the word “may” or even “will”. “Shall” denotes duty, responsibility, and most importantly for purposes of our current debate, obligation. It does not imply in any way, based on it’s historical definition, anything other than that which must be done. Period. End of story. Need I go on?

In other words, there is and shall not be any debate over whether or not the Federal Government should or should not pay for those services for which it has already accrued debt. As long as those debts have been previously legislated and voted on by Congress (which all current debt has), then the Federal Government has a strict obligation to pay those debts. The way that many in the Republican party are holding this issue hostage is counter to their Constitutional duties as members of Congress. They are, if one simply reads the words of the Constitution, not fulfilling their duties by “questioning” the “validity” of the United States debt.

Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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