May 10, 2023 | SCOTUS Concludes Oral Arguments for the Term
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.
Any money the United States owes for paying pensions, or pays for help in stopping a revolt, shall not be questioned. Neither the United States nor any State can pay any money for help in rebelling against the United States, and no State or the United States will pay for a lost or freed slave — in fact all such bills, obligations, and claims are not legal.
|The National Debt||Important Cases|
|The fourth section of the 14th Amendment contains two general elements, both surrounding debt. First, it guarantees that whatever debt the United States government accrues, “shall not be questioned.” Second, it invalidates any debt incurred by any rebellion against the United States (practically, this told those that may have financed the Confederacy’s fight in the Civil War that their debts will never be repaid).|
In actuality, neither of these provisions have been used to directly question government actions in Supreme Court cases; however, the first element – that the U.S. debt is valid – has recently been paid some attention by the media and constitutional scholars. The national debt is high; both political parties agree on this stipulated fact. However, a good deal of controversy has surrounded what is called the “debt ceiling,” a Congressional action that sets the outside legal amount that the federal government may borrow. Though the debt ceiling has been consistently raised as the debt has grown, it is increasingly used as a bargaining chip in political debates.
The question that is being raised, then, is whether the debt ceiling is even constitutional in the first place. The reason the debt ceiling is important is because if the government were to reach the ceiling, without it being raised by Congress, it could no longer afford to pay its debts and obligations in the form of interest on the loans, pensions for government workers, and everyday functions of the government. But according to the 14th Amendment, the debt “shall not be questioned.” Does this mean that any statutory debt ceiling is beyond Congress’ authority? Possibly. But whether Congress has such authority remains a theoretical question only.