The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The 14th Amendment won’t solve the debt limit crisis. Here’s what might.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and President Biden in the Oval Office of the White House on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

While calls have been escalating among Democrats for President Biden to end the debt limit standoff by declaring it unconstitutional, the president himself has made it clear that invoking the 14th Amendment’s language that “the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned” is not going to get Washington out of the mess it is in.

“I’m looking at the 14th Amendment as to whether or not we have the authority — I think we have the authority,” Mr. Biden said over the weekend. "The question is, could it 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. That is a question that I think is unresolved.”

“Unresolved” is putting it mildly. President Barack Obama’s legal team rejected this option during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, and Mr. Biden himself has repeatedly expressed his own wariness to the expansion of presidential power it would require to declare the World War I-era law creating the debt ceiling to suddenly be void a century later.

The truth is, there is only one viable solution as the nation stands on the verge of a catastrophic default: a deal between Mr. Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). A June 1 deadline is looking firm. There was hope the nation could survive financially until a couple of weeks later, when a flood of tax payments will come in, but that seems unlikely. Outside groups from Goldman Sachs to the Congressional Budget Office warn the “X-date” will hit in early June. If the key players can’t reach a deal this week, Congress must enact a short-term extension of the debt ceiling, as it has many times before.

Heather Long: President Biden’s debt ceiling options, ranked

The hopeful news is that the president and House speaker are continuing to talk. A reasonable compromise would be to agree to something close to a two-year freeze in discretionary spending that saves more than $1 trillion over the next decade. A harder call right now is whether to include defense in that freeze, given the demands being placed on the Pentagon by Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s eyeing of Taiwan. But the Defense Department has suggested programs it would like to sunset, implying there are some areas where its budget could be trimmed. Budget deals in the past have also raised or capped defense and nondefense spending in similar ways.

However, enacting caps beyond two years doesn’t make sense — and isn’t realistic. The nation has seen that playbook in the 2011 deal that forced harsh cuts across the board for a decade and slowed the economic recovery. Remember when the nation suddenly didn’t have enough air traffic controllers at airports because of the cuts?

Mr. Biden has said that clawing back some unspent covid funds could be “on the table.” The White House has also reportedly explored some small additional work requirements for cash aid. The president should hold the line, however, against conditioning Medicaid eligibility on work requirements. Arkansas tried this, and the result was mainly to create extra paperwork and kick people off who couldn’t navigate the complicated reporting system. Surely after the pandemic, the nation has learned how much people need basic health-care access.

Skip to end of carousel
  • D.C. Council reverses itself on school resource officers. Good.
  • Virginia makes a mistake by pulling out of an election fraud detection group.
  • Vietnam sentences another democracy activist.
  • Biden has a new border plan.
The D.C. Council voted on Tuesday to stop pulling police officers out of schools, a big win for student safety. Parents and principals overwhelmingly support keeping school resource officers around because they help de-escalate violent situations. D.C. joins a growing number of jurisdictions, from Montgomery County, Md., to Denver, in reversing course after withdrawing officers from school grounds following George Floyd’s murder. Read our recent editorial on why D.C. needs SROs.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) just withdrew Virginia from a data-sharing consortium, ERIC, that made the commonwealth’s elections more secure, following Republicans in seven other states in falling prey to disinformation peddled by election deniers. Former GOP governor Robert F. McDonnell made Virginia a founding member of ERIC in 2012, and until recently conservatives touted the group as a tool to combat voter fraud. D.C. and Maryland plan to remain. Read our recent editorial on ERIC.
In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.


End of carousel

House Republicans, meanwhile, should reconsider their base-pleasing demand that cuts next year fall solely on nondefense programs. For one thing, Democrats would surely reject such a lopsided exemption. Swinging an ax carelessly at the remainder of the budget could also do irreparable damage, given that education and transportation are some of the largest nondefense discretionary spending categories. Students are still recovering from pandemic learning loss. Meanwhile, the nation is finally making long-needed — and bipartisan — improvements to infrastructure. Other vital programs that should be protected include public safety and courts.

Mr. McCarthy keeps claiming the nation has a “spending problem.” The part he leaves out is the spending problem is driven largely by the fact that Social Security, Medicare and health-care costs are shooting up. Yet House Republicans and Mr. Biden don’t want to touch Social Security and Medicare.

Default would be madness. It would jolt markets and the economy and, perhaps worst of all, tarnish U.S. standing in the world. The nation needs a deal this week. The time for posturing and brinkmanship is over.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).