As the clock ticks toward potential default, Congress, still sparring over whether a deal can be reached to increase the debt limit, is facing a new debate. Last week Democrats began talking about the possibility that the debt limit itself is unconstitutional.
They cited Article 6 of the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which says, in part, "All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into . . . shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation." On Sunday, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, termed the idea "crazy talk" on Fox News Sunday.
The article itself, according to the Huffington Post, refers to debt incurred by the federal government, and was included in the post-Civil War amendment to reassure markets that Washington would pay its debts—although not the debts incurred by the Confederacy. However, the Supreme Court in 1935 upheld it as referring to all debt incurred by the federal government in a case concerning a bond issue.
In Perry v. U.S., the majority wrote, "While [the 14th Amendment] was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War, its language indicates a broader connotation. We regard it as confirmatory of a fundamental principle which applies as well to the government bonds in question, and to others duly authorized by the Congress as to those issued before the amendment was adopted. Nor can we perceive any reason for not considering the expression 'the validity of the public debt' as embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations."