The Speech Obama Could Give: 'The Constitution Forbids Default'

This determined minority is now prepared to defy the Constitution to get its way. Some of its voices have begun to say that national default would be welcome, even if it wrecks our international credit and leads the U.S. to default not only on its bonded obligations but on the debts due to its armed forces in the field--debts that are even more sacred than "pensions and bounties for services" already performed by veterans in previous wars. Indeed, I am convinced that the only reason why the framers of Section Four did not explicitly include "payments to military personnel in the field during congressionally authorized military action" is that it was literally unthinkable even to the most hardened partisans among them that any faction within the United States Congress would countenance cutting off payments to those who carry our flag in foreign nations under hostile fire.

Some may ask why I do not simply use my executive authority to juggle accounts and cook the federal books in order to pay the most pressing obligations while I implore this determined minority to honor their oaths to uphold the Constitution. I do not have the luxury of partial or halfhearted compliance with the absolute command of our nation's fundamental law. Section Four does not say that the national debt "shall be paid sooner or later," or "shall be stretched out as long as possible," or "shall be paid in some areas but not in others." It also does not say "shall not be questioned unless Congress really wants to."

As long as I remain president, the national debt of the United States shall not be questioned.

It says it "shall not be questioned." The national debt must be paid in full, on time, regardless of any political division within our Congress. That is what the Framers intended: to set the debt obligations of our country beyond the reach of Congressional meddling. Those obligations will not be questioned as long as I am president of the United States.

This action requires me to authorize borrowing that is not in conformity with the debt-limit statute. But no congressional statute can command or permit our government to violate the Constitution. I find the debt limit, to the extent that it could be construed to require national default on any obligation of our nation, to be in the words of the great chief justice John Marshall, repugnant to the Constitution and thus void.

I regret that the intransigence of a small minority of members of Congress have forced our nation into this situation. I know that some of these same political leaders will now charge me with violating the Constitution -- the same Constitution that they apparently have no desire either to read or to follow. If they truly believe this to be true, I challenge them to bring Articles of Impeachment against me. The charge should be that I did what was necessary to support our troops in the field, to bolster our public credit, and to prevent destitution and despair among American families. I welcome that debate.

But as long as I remain president, the national debt of the United States shall not be questioned. That is my pledge to you, to the world, and to the memory of the brave men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion to rescue the United States from forces who long ago sought its destruction.

Good night. And God bless America.

Image credit: Reuters/Pool New

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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