Put the limit in perspective

This is about the angry and continuing battle over the public debt limit. The only mention of the public debt in the Constitution is in the 14th Amendment, where, removing only the references to the Civil War, it reads “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned.” The word “shall” has perhaps even a greater force of law than the word “must.”


A law was passed in 1917 that for the first time set a limit on the public debt. It caps the debt at an amount reset each time the debt limit has been reached. Any cap clearly conflicts with the words “shall not be questioned.” I find, then, the 1917 law to be clearly unconstitutional. Without that law, there is no cap, and we then resort to dealing with expanding the debt by routine acts of Congress and the president. Instead of setting a new limit, there is no limit and nothing need be done, thus removing it as a means to extract extreme demands for cutting spending, a particularly nasty recent practice, but one we can expect to be used regularly in the future.

It is worthwhile to recall how our debt got so high. In the 1980s, the Republican Party secretly adopted “starve the beast,” a ploy to deliberately increase the deficits. President George W. Bush continued on this plan, as he never gave any thought to pay for his trillion-dollar wars with increases in taxes. The idea eventually was to get the debt so high that the Democrats would be unable to institute any new major programs.

President Obama came along and managed, even with the big deficits, to get a start on universal health care, which is why the GOP has been so wild to see it doesn’t survive.

Victor Reilly

Aiken, S.C.