Roosevelt Institute Hosts Discussion with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Economic Experts to Discuss Constitutional Options for Avoiding Catastrophic Default

Discussion comes as policymakers increasingly recognize the constitutional duty to fulfill America’s obligations and avoid a national default

May 23, 2023
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NY, NY: This week, the Roosevelt Institute hosted a press conference call with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), as well as economic and legal experts, to detail the range of constitutional options available to President Biden to avoid a catastrophic default on the nation’s debt. These options were highlighted in a recent piece by UCLA law professor Joseph Fishkin, who also participated in the call.

Monday’s discussion came amid a continued impasse between the White House and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) about how to address the federal debt ceiling. Lawmakers are increasingly recognizing the duty inherent in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment compelling the president to fulfill America’s obligations and avoid an unprecedented default.

“The president is in a difficult position with few good options. It is his constitutional responsibility to execute all of the laws, not just the demands of some members of Congress based on the debt ceiling statute – and there are many spending laws that he, in fact, must take care to execute,” said Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute. “The 14th Amendment is not about going around Congress, and it is not an ‘option.’ In fact, we would argue that there is good scholarly precedent for saying that the 14th Amendment obligates the president to take prudent action.”

“What the president has here is a choice. He can faithfully execute the debt limit law, in which case he will fail to faithfully execute dozens, if not hundreds, of other laws. Or he can make the choice between conflicting statutes that Congress has presented him,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). “I would say that once we’re through this, and it’s clear that no Speaker can ever threaten to default on the US debt, can ever threaten to destroy the US economy again, which would be the outcome of a determination that the debt limit statute is unconstitutional . . . I think markets would rejoice.”

“Congress has already appropriated the money. And the Biden administration is obligated by law to spend it,” said Joseph Fishkin, professor of law, University of California, Los Angeles. “This is not going around Congress. It’s following the will of Congress.”

“This isn’t about future spending. Congress has told the Biden administration to spend this money. The economy we have right now does not need unnecessary spending caps or other makeshift austerity measures. Holding a historically strong labor market hostage to force a completely unrelated agenda on the country risks an economic catastrophe we can’t afford. Our economy and our democracy deserve better,” said Mike Konczal, director of macroeconomic analysis at the Roosevelt Institute.

The Roosevelt Institute has published a series of blog posts outlining the relevant options and obligations outlined in the Constitution that address these issues: