Legislative control over incurring new debt is a fundamental aspect of separation of powers, going back to Parliament’s curtailment of the royal prerogative of borrowing in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Article I, Section 8, Clause 2 empowers Congress, and only Congress, “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” Without congressional authorization, the President may no more borrow money than he could make new criminal laws, declare war, or enact a new spending program. The “debt ceiling” is simply the limit Congress has imposed on how much money the country may borrow. The executive branch cannot constitutionally borrow a dime in excess of this amount.

Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment does not create a back-door method for the Administration to borrow more money without congressional authorization. For Congress to limit the amount of the debt does not “question” the “validity” of the debt that has been “authorized by law.” At most, it means that paying the public debts and pension obligations of the United States, as they become due, has priority over all other spending. Each month, the Treasury takes in about $175 billion in new revenues. These are more than sufficient to pay principal and interest when due, as well as pension obligations. (Social Security, by the way, is not a “pension” obligation within the meaning of this provision. The Supreme Court held in Fleming v. Nestor that Social Security claims are nothing more than promises to pay, not legal obligations to pay.)…

Thus, the real effect of Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment is almost the opposite of what hopeful voices in Washington are saying. Section Four puts the onus on the President to reduce spending in order to avoid default on the debt. It does not permit him to borrow more.