By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Lee A. Casey
20 February 2023 in the Wall Street Journal
Headlines last week claimed that the Congressional Budget Office had warned the U.S. “could default on its debt” as early as July if Congress didn’t raise the statutory debt limit. What the CBO director actually said was that “the government would have to delay making payments for some activities, default on its debt obligations, or both.” In reality, the U.S. can’t default on its debt.
Section 4 of the 14th Amendment is unequivocal on that point: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, . . . shall not be questioned.” This provision was adopted to ensure that the federal debts incurred to fight the Civil War couldn’t be dishonored by a Congress that included members from the former Confederate states.
The Public Debt Clause isn’t limited to Civil War debts. As the Supreme Court held in Perry v. U.S. (1935), it covers all sovereign federal debt, past, present and future. The case resulted from Congress’s decision during the Great Depression to begin paying federal bonds in currency, including those that promised payment in gold. Bondholders brought an action in the Court of Claims demanding payment in currency equal to the current gold value of the notes. The justices concluded that Congress had violated the Public Debt Clause and that its reference to “the validity of the public debt” was broad enough that it “embraces whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.”
That means the federal government can’t legally default. The Constitution commands that creditors be paid. If they aren’t, they can sue for relief, and the government will lose and pay up.
Those who warn of default confuse debt payments with other spending obligations. “A failure on the part of the United States to meet any obligation, whether it’s to debt holders, to members of our military or to Social Security recipients, is effectively a default,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in January.
That’s nonsense. Authorized and even appropriated spending isn’t “the public debt.” For constitutional purposes, promised benefits from Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements aren’t even property, as the Supreme Court held in Flemming v. Nestor (1960), and Congress has as much authority to reduce them as to increase them. When lawmakers were drafting the 14th Amendment, they revised Section 4’s language to replace the term “obligations” with “debts.” If the Treasury ran out of money, the constitutional obligation to pay bondholders would trump all statutory obligations to spend.
Ms. Yellen also said that “Treasury’s systems have all been built to pay all of our bills when they’re due and on time, and not to prioritize one form of spending over another.” But as the Journal has reported, department officials conceded in 2011 that the government’s fiscal machinery certainly could prioritize payments to bondholders, and the Federal Reserve prepared for such a contingency. There’s no question enough money would be available: The government collects roughly $450 billion a month in tax revenue, more than enough to cover the $55 billion or so in monthly debt service.
These basic facts should inform decisions by credit-rating agencies in establishing the U.S. government’s creditworthiness. Those agencies have traditionally acted favorably when heavily indebted countries have significantly cut public spending rather than default on their debt.
Like Ulysses binding himself to the mast, the Public Debt Clause ties the government’s hands in a way that ultimately serves its interests. Around the world, public defaults are ubiquitous. Since 1960, 147 governments, including some Western democracies, have defaulted—many repeatedly—on their sovereign debt. The U.S. isn’t among them, in large part because of the Constitution’s restriction, buttressed by the rule of law. That’s why the nation is able to borrow so easily, and so much, at such favorable rates. If the Biden administration and other default doomsayers convince the world that U.S. debt isn’t secure, they will drive up the cost of borrowing—at least until the courts set things straight.
Rather than issue baseless warnings of default, the Treasury should tout the Public Debt Clause as a reason why investments in U.S. bonds are rock solid and entail no meaningful risk of default. That could help secure more-favorable credit terms for Treasury instruments than those paid by other Western countries. The strategy is well worth pursuing, given the sharp increase in rates at which Treasury is currently selling its benchmark 10-year notes—from 2% to 3.6% over a single year—resulting in a major escalation in U.S. debt-servicing obligations.
The real risk we face is out-of-control federal spending, not default. But spending cuts and tax hikes are politically unpopular. That leaves borrowing, which explains the recurring tumult over the debt ceiling. How the U.S. covers its spending tab is a debate worth having, as is whether that tab should be so high. Fear-mongering about default is a way to avoid these debates and avoid confronting the hard choices we face as a result of decades’ worth of overspending.
Those who vote against raising the debt ceiling will take a political risk, perhaps a substantial one, as payments many Americans reasonably anticipate may not arrive. Whether to proceed with this strategy if the Biden administration persists in refusing to accept any deal on future federal spending is a difficult question. But it should be debated honestly, unclouded by specious warnings of default.
Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.