it is beyond congressional power to invoke the sovereign power of the people to override their will
Eric LaMont Gregory
Chief Justice Charles E Hughes, delived the opinion of the Court in the case of Perry v United States, 294 US 330 (1935), "Clearly, and constitutionally Congress cannot repudiate the debt of the US Government, since Congress has not been vested with the authority to alter or destroy such obligations."
Does the Congress of the United States have the power to allow the United States Government to default on its obligations?
Chief Justice Hughes found it to be beyond the Constitutional authority of the Congress to alter or to destroy obligations duly entered into by the Government of the United States.
The Constitution, Hughes writes, gives to the Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States, an unqualified power, a power vital to the government, upon which in an extremity its very life may depend. The binding quality of the promise of the United States is of the essence of the credit which is so pledged. Having this power to authorize the issue of definite obligations for the payment of money borrowed, the Congress has not been vested with authority to alter or destroy those obligations.
The question is whether the Congress can use that power so as to invalidate the terms of the obligations which the government has theretofore issued in the exercise of the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States. In attempted justification of the Joint Resolution in relation to the outstanding bonds of the United States, the government argues that 'earlier Congresses could not validly restrict the 73rd Congress from exercising its constitutional powers to regulate the value of money, borrow money, or regulate foreign and interstate commerce'; and, from this premise, the government seems to deduce the proposition that when, with adequate authority, the government borrows money and pledges the credit of the United States, it is free to ignore that pledge and alter the terms of its obligations in case a later Congress finds their fulfillment inconvenient. The government's contention thus raises a question of far greater importance than the particular claim of the plaintiff. On that reasoning, if the terms of the government's bond as to the standard of payment can be repudiated, it inevitably follows that the obligation as to the amount to be paid may also be repudiated. The contention necessarily imports that the Congress can disregard the obligations of the government at its discretion, and that, when the government borrows money, the credit of the United States is an illusory pledge.
We do not so read the Constitution. There is a clear distinction between the power of the Congress to control or interdict the contracts of private parties when they interfere with the exercise of its constitutional authority and the power of the Congress to alter or repudiate the substance of its own engagements when it has borrowed money under the authority which the Constitution confers. In authorizing the Congress to borrow money, the Constitution empowers the Congress to fix the amount to be borrowed and the terms of payment. By virtue of the power to borrow money 'on the credit of the United States,' the Congress is authorized to pledge that credit as an assurance of payment as stipulated, as the highest assurance the government can give, its plighted faith. To say that the Congress may withdraw or ignore that pledge is to assume that the Constitution contemplates a vain promise; a pledge having no other sanction than the pleasure and convenience of the pledgor. This Court has given no sanction to such a conception of the obligations of our government.
The binding quality of the obligations of the government was considered in the Sinking Fund Cases, 99 U.S. 700, 718, 719 S.. The question before the Court in those cases was whether certain action was warranted by a reservation to the Congress of the right to amend the charter of a railroad company. While the particular action was sustained under this right of amendment, the Court took occasion to state emphatically the obligatory character of the contracts of the United States. The Court said: 'The United States are as much bound by their contracts as are individuals. If they repudiate their obligations, it is as much repudiation, with all the wrong and reproach that term implies, as it would be if the repudiator had been a State or a municipality or a citizen.' When the United States, with constitutional authority, makes contracts, it has rights and incurs responsibilities similar to those of individuals who are parties to such instruments. There is no difference, said the Court in United States v. Bank of the Metropolis, 15 Pet. 377, 392, except that the United States cannot be sued without its consent. See, also, The Floyd Acceptances, 7 Wall. 666, 675; Cooke v. United States, 91 U.S. 389, 396. In Lynch v. United States, 292 U.S. 571, 580, 54 S.Ct. 840, 844, with respect to an attempted abrogation by the Act of March 20, 1933, 17, 48 Stat. 8, 11 (38 USCA 717), of certain outstanding war risk insurance policies, which were contracts of the United States, the Court quoted with approval the statement in the Sinking Fund Cases, supra, and said: 'Punctilious fulfillment of contractual obligations is essential to the maintenance of the credit of public as well as private debtors.
No doubt there was in March, 1933, great need of economy. In the administration of all government business economy had become urgent because of lessened revenues and the heavy obligations to be issued in the hope of relieving widespread distress. Congress was free to reduce gratuities deemed excessive. But Congress was without power to reduce expenditures by abrogating contractual obligations of the United States. To abrogate contracts, in the attempt to lessen government expenditure, would be not the practice of economy, but an act of repudiation.'
The argument in favor of the Joint Resolution, as applied to government bonds, is in substance that the government cannot by contract restrict the exercise of a sovereign power. But the right to make binding obligations is a competence attaching to sovereignty. In the United States, sovereignty resides in the people who act through the organs established by the Constitution. Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, 471; Penhallow v. Doane's Administrators, 3 Dall. 54, 93; McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 404, 405; Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 370, 6 S.Ct. 1064. The Congress as the instrumentality of sovereignty is endowed with certain powers to be exerted on behalf of the people in the manner and with the effect the Constitution ordains. The Congress cannot invoke the sovereign power of the people to override their will as thus declared.
The powers conferred upon the Congress are harmonious. The Constitution gives to the Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States, an unqualified power, a power vital to the government, upon which in an extremity its very life may depend. The binding quality of the promise of the United States is of the essence of the credit which is so pledged. Having this power to authorize the issue of definite obligations for the payment of money borrowed, the Congress has not been vested with authority to alter or destroy those obligations. The fact that the United States may not be sued without its consent is a matter of procedure which does not affect the legal and binding character of its contracts. While the Congress is under no duty to provide remedies through the courts, the contractual obligation still exists, and, despite infirmities of procedure, remains binding upon the conscience of the sovereign. Lynch v. United States, supra, pages 580, 582, of 292 U.S. 54 S.Ct. 840.
The Fourteenth Amendment, in its fourth section, explicitly declares: 'The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law , ... shall not be questioned.' While this provision was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War, its language indicates a broader connotation. We regard it as confirmatory of a fundamental principle which applies as well to the government bonds in question, and to others duly authorized by the Congress, as to those issued before the amendment was adopted. Nor can we perceive any reason for not considering the expression 'the validity of the public debt' as embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.
We conclude that the Joint Resolution of June 5, 1933, in so far as it attempted to override the obligation created by the bond in suit, went beyond the congressional power.
Clearly, and constitutionally Congress cannot repudiate the debt of the US Governemnt, since Congress has not been vested with the authority to alter or destroy such obligations.