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Can the Constitution Solve the Debt Crisis?

The 14th Amendment could help President Obama in his ideological struggle with the GOP.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), center

President Obama is engaged in an intellectual civil war with Congressional Republican leadership and their Tea Party Caucus. Unlike the battles being fought in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, the standoff between Republicans and President Obama is not a war of religious ideology and weapons of steel, but a politically manufactured farce waged for one purpose: to undermine the Obama presidency by threatening the economic solvency of the United States of America.

The debate over the debt-ceiling increase -- which until now had been a routine, procedural vote -- has become an overpoliticized debacle, due in large part to the viscerally partisan climate that the Tea Party movement brought to Washington in the wave of the midterm election. Republican recalcitrance became so stifling that it sucks any oxygen from otherwise productive, balanced debate.

With regard to the debt ceiling in particular, the GOP has been successful in framing the parameters of the conversation by linking any possible revenue increases through the elimination of tax loopholes for the rich (Obama's proposal) to sharp decreases in government spending and social benefits (the GOP's firm stance). By restricting the debate in this way, Republicans showed their true colors: They would rather reduce programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security, with no consideration of tax increases for the nation's wealthiest individuals and billionaire corporations.

And Republicans do this despite being fully aware of the potential consequences of a default: Banks will not provide loans, mortgage rates will rise exponentially, government jobs will disappear, military personnel will go unpaid and senior citizens will cease to receive benefits. The underemployed would be joined by a new hybrid of discouraged, disaffected worker.

Obama made his case plain to the American public on Monday when he explained that this was a political debate, not one of moral consciousness. The debt-ceiling increase -- an agreement to cover payment for debts already incurred -- had been extended 18 times under Reagan's tenure and seven times during the George W. Bush presidency.

So, does President Obama have a fail-safe option if he can't achieve a satisfactory compromise? Yes. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution -- best known for securing the rights of former slaves through birthright citizenship, due process and equal protection -- also has a little-known fourth section that explicitly declares, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law ... shall not be questioned."

Obama could unilaterally issue an executive order extending the debt ceiling, thus bypassing Congress and its political morass. The radical right-wingers in the GOP who sought to create a constitutional crisis would be silenced and would have to answer for their actions at the polls come November 2012.

Clyburn saw it as a fulfillment of presidential duty to protect the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. "Whatever discussions about the legality of that can continue," Clyburn said. "I believe that something like this will bring calm to the American people and will bring needed stability to our financial markets."

Initial reports from White Press Secretary Jay Carney suggest that this is not a choice Obama prefers -- partly because of potential legal challenges and the fact that bonds issued after an executive order may remain subject to higher interest rates or ratings downgrades by Moody's and Standard & Poor's.

Yet history reveals that former presidents have already taken similar actions. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (which guarantees a prisoner the right to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment) by invoking the "necessities of state." Harry Truman famously issued an executive order to racially integrate the armed forces when Congress remained divided and Southern representatives were vehemently opposed.