Democrat Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania is facing scrutiny after he claimed last week that the “whole reason” for the 14th Amendment was to assist with debt negotiations. The Amendment extended citizenship to former slaves and guaranteed “equal protection of the laws.”
Fetterman’s comments came as he pushed for President Joe Biden to use the 14th Amendment to avoid a default on the national debt. Legal experts have repeatedly claimed that such a move is unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny.
“The entire GOP debt ceiling negotiation is a sad charade, and it’s exactly what’s wrong with Washington. We’re playing with fire and the livelihoods of millions just for the GOP to try and turn the screws on hungry Americans,” wrote Fetterman in a tweet on May 18. “This is the whole reason why the 14th Amendment exists, and we need to be prepared to use it. We cannot let these reckless Republicans hold the economy hostage.”
The Amendment was ratified in 1868, three years after the conclusion of the Civil War, and was considered by both ordinary Americans and scholars to be one of the most essential assurances of civil liberties in American history. It encoded due process and citizenship for former slaves and is noticeably remembered, discussed, debated today, and lauded for its landmark “equal protection” clause.
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,” is stated in Section 1 of the Amendment.
“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Although the primary reasoning behind the 14th Amendment is a modification to the Constitution, it also features a section on public debt. The Amendment reads, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debt incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”
Fetterman’s remarks drew swift backlash
Senator Fetterman’s remarks drew quick backlash, with several social media users taking aim at the junior senator for not recognizing that the 14th Amendment has a greater significance.
Former Trump adviser Stephen Miller tweeted, “How about this: we will take you seriously as a constitutional scholar when you stop dressing like an 11-year-old at a skate park.”
“This is less surprising when you remember that the acting Senator/person making all the decisions in this office is a former Chief of Staff for Harry Reid,” wrote former NRSC advisor Matt Whitlock in a tweet, referencing Fetterman’s chief of staff, Adam Jentleson.
“Oh, I see someone woke up wanting to take Keith Olbermann’s title for Most Unserious Tweet [Constitution Category]. Except this man is an honest-to-darn U.S. Senator, not a former sports commentator. Far less funny and far more concerning,” tweeted Amy Swearer, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“For the record, it’s not even the point of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, much less the point of the entire 14th Amendment,” added Swearer in a follow-up tweet.
“Of course, Democrats want to erase Republicans enacting the 14th Amendment after their ancestors lost the Civil War,” wrote Matthew Foldi, the former congressional candidate.
“‘ The 14th Amendment was not ratified to grant citizenship to former slaves & freed blacks — and provide all citizens with equal protection under the law — but actually was ratified solely to give the President the power to spend money in violation of federal law’ is quit the take,” said the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Jonathan Ingram.
The 14th Amendment was the second of three amendments from the Reconstruction Era that was adopted quickly following the Civil War after the U.S. rushed to encode the liberties secured during the conflict.
Despite Fetterman’s urging that the president use the Amendment amid debt negotiations, experts doubt the validity of Biden’s possible invocation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to raise the federal borrowing limit.
“The plain reading of Section Four is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the debt limit. Existing debts cannot be questioned, but raising the debt ceiling is for the purpose of creating new debts. Nothing in Section Four says Congress must create new debt to service older debt. A failure to raise the debt ceiling in no way questions the validity of existing debts,” said an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, Ilan Wurman.
This week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that invoking the Amendment— an idea that the White House has distanced itself from — could cause a “constitutional crisis.”