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The Republican Debt Ceiling Gambit Is Unconstitutional

By Ian Millhiser  

"The Republican Debt Ceiling Gambit Is Unconstitutional"

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House Republicans are backing away from their threat to plunge the United States into a catastrophic budget default and will instead pursue the somewhat less reckless strategy of passing a three-month increase in the debt limit. According to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), the bill will also contain a provision cutting off congressional pay unless both houses meet a particular milestone: “If the Senate or House fails to pass a budget in that time, members of Congress will not be paid by the American people for failing to do their job. No budget, no pay.”

Before Cantor gets too excited about this plan, however, he may want to familiarize himself with the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the Constitution:

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

There is no election between now and three-months from now, so no law that would cut off congressional pay can take effect then. The Constitution is very clear on this point. Indeed, Republicans should have discovered this fact when House members read the Constitution aloud on the House floor last Tuesday.

To be sure, it is good news that House Republicans appear to be realizing that they can no longer hold the fate of the entire world economy hostage to their narrow agenda. But they aren’t allowed to violate the Constitution either.

Update

Buzzfeed’s John Stanton reports that Republicans claim their “no budget, no pay” provision is constitutional because “it doesn’t change the level of pay but withholds it” until a subsequent date. This claim, however, is not consistent with the text of the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. The Constitution forbids laws “varying the compensation” of members of Congress, not just laws that change the amount of their pay. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the verb “vary” means “to make a partial change in : make different in some attribute or characteristic.” Changing the timing of congressional pay makes a change in some attribute or characteristic of how members are compensated.

Update

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) agrees, saying on Friday, “that’s unconstitutional.”

Update

That was quick. Issa’s already flip-flopped from his earlier view that the GOP plan violates the Constitution.

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