Using 14th Amendment to solve debt ceiling would risk 'constitutional crisis,' Yellen says

The treasury secretary warned of possible "calamity" unless Congress acts.

May 7, 2023, 11:20 AM

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday said invoking the 14th Amendment to get around the debt ceiling and continue borrowing money to pay the nation's bills would risk a "constitutional crisis," downplaying the idea that the amendment would simply solve the looming problem -- but she avoided ruling it out entirely.

"What to do if Congress fails to meet its responsibility? There are simply no good options, and the ones that you've listed are among the not good options," Yellen told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos when pressed on whether the Biden administration was considering using the 14th Amendment, which states that the public debt "shall not be questioned."

Yellen said on "This Week" that the only way for the U.S. to avoid an unprecedented default as soon as next month is for Congress to pass legislation doing so, even as the White House and congressional Democrats appear to be in a stalemate with Republicans over GOP demands to tie steep spending cuts to raising or suspending the debt ceiling.

Amid that debate, President Joe Biden said on Friday, of trying to use the 14th Amendment as a solution: "I've not gotten there yet."

"But it didn't seem like he took it off the table. So, is it still a possibility?" Stephanopoulos asked Yellen on Sunday.

"Our priority is to make sure that Congress does its job," she said. "There is no way to protect our financial system in our economy other than Congress doing its job and raising the debt ceiling and enabling us to pay our bills. And we should not get to the point where we need to consider whether the president can go on issuing debt. This would be a constitutional crisis."

Stephanopoulos followed up: "Is that a hard and fast position that the president will under no circumstances invoke the 14th Amendment?"

"All I want to say is that it's Congress' job to do this. If they fail to do it, we will have an economic and financial catastrophe that will be of our own making, and there is no action that President Biden and the U.S. Treasury can take to prevent that catastrophe," Yellen replied, later saying, "I don't want to consider emergency options."

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a news conference at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., April 11, 2023.
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters, FILE

The treasury secretary echoed the president's position: that the debt ceiling should not be used as leverage as part of Republicans' negotiations with the White House over the budget.

"Since 1960, the debt ceiling has been raised 78 times, three times during the prior administration, always with bipartisan support," Yellen said. "And it simply is unacceptable for Congress to threaten economic calamity for American households and the global financial system as the cost of raising the debt ceiling and getting the agreements on budget priorities."

Yellen reiterated that she expects the Treasury Department to no longer be able to pay all of its obligations as soon as June 1, a timeline that has jumpstarted negotiations in Washington.

"This would be really the first time in the history of America that we would fail to make payments that are due," Yellen said. "And whether it's defaulting on interest payments that are due on the debt or payments due for Social Security recipients or to Medicare providers, we would simply not have enough cash to meet all of our obligations. And it's widely agreed that financial and economic chaos would ensue."

Biden is set to meet with the leaders of each chamber of Congress on Tuesday to discuss spending and the debt.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., insists that the president agree to steep budget cuts as a condition of getting GOP support for a debt limit increase. That position is shared by many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

On Saturday, a group of 43 Republican senators signed onto a letter to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that said they would not vote "for cloture on any bill that raises the debt ceiling without substantive spending and budget reforms."

"It's entirely reasonable to be able to sit down and say, if we're continuing to add more and more debt, let's talk about the whole view," Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, a signatory of the letter, said Sunday in a separate "This Week" appearance.

Biden, meanwhile, says the debt should be separated from any compromise on the budget and spending.

"I know he wants to set up a process in which spending priorities and levels are discussed and negotiated," Yellen said on "This Week." "But these negotiations should not take place with a gun, really, to the head of the American people."