What is the penalty for questioning the public debt of the United States?

What is the penalty for violating this section? Is the punishment defined somewhere else in Federal Law? Or is this just saying that any attempt to legislate the debt away or issue court rulings adjudicating the debt void are themselves null and void, but the naughty officials who were behind the law or ruling don’t get jailed or made to pay civil penalties? Who, if anyone, has standing to enforce this clause?

Hopefully others will have cites, but:

  1. What is the penalty for violating this section?
    I don’t believe there is any.

  2. Is the punishment defined somewhere else in Federal Law?
    I don’t believe there is any penalty at all.

  3. Or is this just saying that any attempt to legislate the debt away or issue court rulings adjudicating the debt void are themselves null and void[?]
    The issue has never come up, as far as I am aware, but it wouldn’t be crazy for a court to issue a ruling like this. They probably wouldn’t though since there would be no way to enforce it.

  4. [Do] the naughty officials who were behind the law or ruling […] get jailed or made to pay civil penalties?
    Again, probably not.

  5. Who, if anyone, has standing to enforce this clause?
    Probably a creditor of the United States, but quite possibly no one.

I believe the main consequence is that Congress can’t pass a law voiding public debt.

There was some discussion during the recent debt ceiling crisis that Congress could be breaching this by not allocating money to pay treasury interest. Happily it never got so far as that though.

Depends on what you mean by “never come up”. During the debt ceiling hostage crisis, many were suggesting that a failure to raise the ceiling constituted “questioning the public debt of the United States”. That argument never made it to a court, though.

There is no penalty. It isn’t a criminal law, but a restriction on government power.


That is correct, that is what it is saying. The US national debt seemed so large in 1866–$2.8 billion relative to a GDP of $9 billion–that people were afraid the US would default, especially after Southerners were readmitted to Congress. The provision effectively makes default unconstitutional.

Since the Supreme Court has emerged as the final authority on weighing government actions against the Constitution, I would expect litigants to turn to the Court if and when enforcement becomes necessary.

My take on this is more along the lines of All debts incurred by suppressing an insurrection or rebellion are viable payable debts.

Any debts incurred by an insurrection or rebellion are null and void.
If Texas rose up against the Federal Gov’t with backing from Mexico. If they lost Texas’s debt to Mexico would be null and void.

Whereas any other states that borrowed money/goods from each other in attempting to suppress Texas would have a valid debt that shall not be questioned.

What is means is that a so called “Taxpayer suit” to challenge a federal expenditure will not be entertained in a U.S. Court of law, with a rare exception.

Basically, it says something about the role and powers of the federal government. If the government wnated to penalize someone who violates this provision, they would ahve to pass a law. If they pass a law that says something about the public debt (i.e. “we refuse to pay all debt issued by the fed since 1990” or something) the SCOTUS may find that law unconstitutional because it violates the constitutional provision.

It’s a confidence measure - basically it tells people who lend to the USA, don’t worry we or a future government or one of the states can’t refuse to pay, or pass a law voiding any part of US borrowing debt, unless we amend the constitution. But - a debt incurred by a rebellious element or bogus government is not our debt.

I assume at the time, some governments, especially in Europe, were notorious for unilaterally decreeing changes in borrowing terms after the fact?

I suppose the “for suppressing insurrection or rebellion” clause means that when Sherman’s army is marching through Georgia, if they take a bunch of horses or the navy seize a ship as troop carrier from the nearest harbour; and offer to reimburse the owner with Union paper; that person can’t refuse to accept.

No, that’s not what it means. It means that debts incurred by our (Union) side must be honored. It means that debts incurred by the other side cannot be honored–at least, not by state or federal governments.

*The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. *

The U.S.A. (Union/Federals/winning side) is responsible for it’s debts.

*But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void. *

The U.S.A. (Union/Federals/winning side) is not responsible for any debts incurred by the C.S.A (Conderate States/rebels/losing side).

Any lawsuits demanding payment to recover costs or losses for being on the losing side would have no legal standing in U.S. courts. No legal standing means no legal recourse or you don’t got no place to file a lawsuit, buddy. Hit the road. Move it or lose it. Don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out the door.

**What is the penalty for questioning the public debt of the United States? **

You have to pay it off.

Sure, there would be a way to enforce it. Say, tomorrow (OK on Monday) Congress passes (and the Pres signs) a law saying “The U.S. won’t pay any debt issued before 2003.” On Tuesday, someone who has U.S. bonds issued in 1998 files suit saying ‘No way, give me my money-- look here in the Constitution, it says you have to give it to me.’ The courts (possibly appealed all the way to the Supreme Court) say ‘Yes, he’s right. The law is unconstitutional and therefore null and void. U.S. Treasury: give that woman her money.’
So, bottom line, the penalty for questioning the debt of the U.S. (in the sense that the amendment means) is that the U.S. Courts say “Nope, sorry, can’t do that. Pay the man.”

But “shall not be questioned” seems to be even stricter than “do not do X.” If Congressman Jones from the State of Doperland say, “You know, I think that the national debt is really only 16.1 trillion instead of 16.2 trillion” has he violated his oath to uphold the Constitution because he dared “question” the validity of the debt?

What I was thinking is that there’s no way for the courts to force the government to “pay the man.” Courts can order the government to do so, but they cannot force it to do so. I was thinking that courts might be wary of imposing such an order since the government could say “I’d still rather not.” And in that case the debt would not be paid and courts would look fairly powerless, which they generally try to avoid. That said, courts do often order people to pay things that don’t get paid (child support and the like are the instances that come to mind), and a court order enforcing the validity of the federal debt might just be a bigger version of essentially the same thing.

No. The clause is not intended to be read hyper-literally. “Shall not be questioned” is short-hand for “it shall be paid as promised”, with no reduction, redefintion, omission, or rescheduling of either principal or interest.

Such matters have been subject to litigation, at least once. When the United States went off of the gold standard, Congress attempted to repeal the requirement for repayment in gold which had attached to certain previous bond issues. The Supreme Court, in Perry v. United States said no dice; that would be a partial default.

The Court invoked Section 4 only in passing, finding that even without it Congress had no power to override a previous pledge of the nation’s credit. In their words,

Well, sure, the Federal Court system has no army that can physically break into Fort Knox and take out gold or otherwise literally hold a gun to the head of the Secretary of the Treasury. But that’s true for every Court decision; they’re only carried out because people agree to carry them out. In the same sense, Congress has no ability to force anyone to do anything either; there aren’t any tank divisions under Congress’ control.
So, yeah, you’re trivially right, but it’s not any different in that sense from any other part of the Constitution or federal law.