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Get Serious About A Balanced Budget

Time to Get Serious About a Balanced Budget Amendment

In the last eight years, our nation’s debt has doubled.  That means the Obama administration has borrowed as much money in eight years as our government borrowed in the 220 years between the first day of the George Washington administration until the last day of the George W. Bush administration.

Our interest costs are now eating us alive, and last year, the Congressional Budget Office warned that within six years on our current trajectory, interest payments on the debt will exceed what we now spend for our entire defense budget.

Before we can provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare we have to be able to pay for it, and our massive debt directly threatens our ability to do so.  History warns us that nations that bankrupt themselves aren’t around very long.

I am confident that the new administration clearly understands the peril this poses to our country.  The nomination of Mick Mulvaney to head the Office of Management and Budget is a powerful signal that this danger will soon be addressed aggressively and effectively.

This debt is our generation’s doing and our generation’s responsibility to set right.   When we do so, we must leave behind the mechanisms to assure that reckless borrowing never threatens our government again.

For this reason, last week I reintroduced a proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, House Joint Resolution 12.

The beauty of the American Constitution is in its simplicity and its humility.  The American Founders recognized Cicero’s wisdom that “the best laws are the simplest ones.”  And they humbly realized that they couldn’t possibly foresee the circumstances and conditions that may confront future generations.  They resisted the temptation to micro-manage every decision that might be made centuries in the future.

Instead, they set forth general principles of governance and erected a structure in which human nature itself would naturally guide future decisions to comport with these principles.

In crafting a balanced budget amendment, we need to maintain these qualities. We should not attempt to tell future generations specifically how they should manage their revenues and expenditures in times that we cannot comprehend.  The experience of many states that operate under their own balanced budget amendments tells us that the more complicated and convoluted such strictures become, the more they are circumvented and manipulated.

In 1798, Thomas Jefferson wrote this observation to John Taylor:

“I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its Constitution; I mean an additional article, taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.” 

What is a balanced budget? It’s simply a budget that doesn’t require us to borrow.  Then why not just say so, as Jefferson did?

Instead of trying to define fiscal years, outlays, expenditures, revenues, emergencies, triggers, sequestrations and on and on, I hope we would consider 27 simple words:

“The United States government may not increase its debt except for a specific purpose by law adopted by three-fourths of the membership of both Houses of Congress.”

That’s it.

Such an amendment, taking effect ten years from ratification, would give the government time to put its affairs in order and thereafter naturally require future Congresses to maintain both a balanced budget and a prudent reserve to accommodate fluctuations of revenues and routine contingencies.

It trusts that three-fourths of Congress will be able to recognize a genuine emergency when it sees one and that one-fourth of Congress will be strong enough to resist borrowing for trivial reasons.  The states’ experience warns us that a 2/3 vote is insufficient to protect against profligacy.

Some advocate going much farther and establishing limitations on spending and taxation as well, but prohibiting borrowing sets a natural limit to the willingness of the people to tolerate taxation and therefore spending.  The real danger is when run-away spending is accommodated by borrowing – a hidden future tax.  The best and most effective way to invoke that natural limit is a simple prohibition.

In drafting an amendment to guide not only this generation, but all those to follow, I would hope that we would do as the Constitutional Convention would have done if it had the benefit of Jefferson’s wise counsel: set down the general principle only and allow future generations, with their own insight into their own challenges, to put it to practical effect.