Taxes & Spending

The Return of the Balanced Budget Amendment

[This article was published in the March 7th issue of HUMAN EVENTS newspaper.]

“The balanced budget amendment has good aspects, but it is simply not good enough in dealing with fundamental constitutional change for our country.” And thus with that 23-word statement in 1997, Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey sunk conservative spirits. No longer did the U.S. Senate have the two-thirds it needed to enshrine a fundamental principle of governing into the highest law of the land: that politicians should pay for what they spend.

Controversial, I know. Pfft.

Due to Democrat Torricelli’s jellyfish backbone, the 1997 Balanced Budget Amendment fell one vote short of hitting the needed threshold, which was the same margin of failure as just one year before. And liberals couldnt have been happier. Their penchant for obligating the taxpayers of tomorrow to pay for the spending binges of today remained unbroken.

Not that the dissenting senators worded their objections that way. Nope. To Vermont’s incorrigible leftist Sen. Patrick Leahy, inserting a mechanism into the Constitution that would enable our government’s books to mirror the realities American businesses and families face daily was “bumper sticker politics” and “sloganeering.” The way toward rectifying Uncle Sam’s balance sheet was, according to Leahy, “political courage,” not tinkering with the Constitution. Thirty-three of Leahy’s Democratic colleagues agreed.

Mind-Boggling Debt

Of course, by “political courage,” Leahy didnt mean reforming our insolvent entitlement systems or abolishing many of the improvident, senseless, and unconstitutional government bureaucracies and programs in existence. Nah. He meant tax increases on the rich. You know the drill, people.

Prescience, however, is not a valued commodity in Washington, D.C., as lawmakers pursue policies that are in the best interest of their reelection, not of the republic.

When the balanced budget amendment failed in 1997, the federal deficit stood at just $22 billion and the national debt hovered around 5.5 trillion — meager compared with today’s obscene figures, where we have a deficit topping $1.6 trillion this year alone accompanied by a mind-boggling debt of $14 trillion and growing.

To put our debt in perspective, Kobe Bryant makes $25 million playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Any guesses on how many seasons Kobe would have to play in order to pay off today’s national debt? How about a whopping 560,000. That’s chilling, and quite frankly, incomprehensible.

Heck, we’ve run deficits in 54 of the last 60 years, as the National Taxpayer Union points out. That’s a figure that would make Keynes himself blink.

Ironically, Leahy was on the right track when he spoke of the need for political courage. This country desperately needs it, but it must manifest itself in the form of politicians who will defend the property rights of all Americans as opposed to the current lawmaking that treats this nation’s treasury as a personal ATM card.

The brute political courage we need is for politicians to plug Congress’s desire to ransack the appropriations process to engineer winners and losers in the marketplace and thus perpetuate a class of constituents whose inspiration to vote is driven by keeping the government gravy train on a track straight to their bank accounts.

Thanks to the midterm elections, the time for real political courage is now: The balanced budget amendment is making a comeback thanks to one veteran and one freshman senator.

“The people are calling for it. They are clamoring for it. They’re demanding it,” said newly elected Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has 19 of his colleagues, including Jim DeMint and Rand Paul, rallying in support of his balanced budget amendment. “The American people overwhelmingly demand it, and if members of Congress value their jobs, they are going to vote for it,” he told Human Events in an exclusive interview.

Lee’s a Tea Party faithful who believes his job boils down to this bare-bones task: produce a government in the original mold of the Constitution, which is to say, one whose legislative reach is restricted and clearly defined. In other words, a federal government that looks absolutely nothing like what we have today.

Opportune Time Needed

Lee is so intent on getting a vote on his balanced budget amendment that he’s ready to filibuster the vote on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling as a tactical move.

“I can tell you that there are a lot of people who will not even consider it [a vote on the debt limit] without a balanced budget amendment first being proposed by Congress,” he said emphatically.

That’s certainly one approach — to hold the Senate hostage until real, austere statutory spending limits are adopted.

Utah’s senior Sen. Orrin Hatch doesnt see it that way. He’s looking for a vote on his balanced budget amendment too, but at a time believed to be the most opportune for passage. He hasn’t set firm timetables or made any strict demands.

“You have to have a bipartisan vote. You have to have a President that does care, and you have to have a setting in time where people can’t do anything but vote for it,” Hatch explained. “Right now, I don’t think we have that.”

If youre keeping score, the two senators from Utah both have competing balanced budget amendments floating around the Senate. In some ways, these jockeying amendments are a reflection of the Tea Party being a big kid on the block within the GOP.

Hatch, though, has been in the Senate for more than three decades, and is confident that he can get a balanced budget amendment through, which is why he’s taking a softer tone and insisting on waiting for the best moment to accomplish that.

And there’s something to be said for Hatch’s, well, “political,” approach. He’s shepherded the balanced budget amendment since 1982, when it was approved in the Senate, but torpedoed in the House by then-Speaker Tip O’Neill. And, as noted above, Hatch came painstakingly close twice in the Senate, both in 1996 and 1997.

“It’s every bit as difficult now, but it’s important that we bring it up and that we make all the strides we can,” he said.

The long-serving senator has 32 co-sponsors for his bill, including Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.

When it comes down to it, both Hatch and Lee’s amendments have the same goal: ending profligate spending. In fact, as Nobel Laureate James Buchanan said, “The balanced budget norm is ultimately based on the acceptance of the classic principles of public finance, meaning that politicians shouldn’t spend more than they are willing to generate in tax revenues, except during periods of extreme and temporary emergency.”

Wait, why is this concept controversial again? Because it handcuffs Big Government believers from exerting influence over our personal decision making, thats why.


Courts Involved

There are notable differences between the balanced budget amendments of Hatch and Lee, which we lay out in detail in the accompanying chart. While Mike Lee would restrict government spending to 18% of the gross domestic product (GDP), Hatch’s limits the figure to 20%. The 40-year average of tax receipts to GDP is around 18%, and Hatch knows this to be the case, but, to quote him, “If you get it too low, then you lose any chance with the Democrats.” And that, right there, encapsulates the internal friction the GOP will face with this budding Tea Party caucus going head-to-head with those who are willing to work with Democrats to deliver a final product.

But there’s more: Hatch’s proposal allows a simple majority vote to waive the balanced budget requirement when there’s a declaration of war or a designated military conflict, whereas Lee’s amendment provides no such exception. His threshold is much higher — a two-thirds vote.

When aren’t we in a military conflict? Lee quips.

There are also differences in the enforcement mechanism. Lee would grant standing in federal court to members of Congress if flagrant violations of the amendment occur. Hatch doesnt want the courts anywhere near enforcement, believing that public pressure placed on politicians instead provides the best form of accountability. Plus, “Who wants the courts doing it?” asked Hatch, alluding to their predilection toward activism.

Lee himself acknowledges that court intervention would be rare, but that the mere possibility that it could occur would add some additional incentive to Congress to make sure that it stays within their restrictions.

So far, so good.

But procedurally, how would our gargantuan budget ever get balanced? We’re dealing with trillions of dollars here, after all, a highly complex web of arithmetic. Congress must make a good-faith effort, say Hatch and Lee, to use the best possible projections of spending and receipts. Even with the accurate projections, economic conditions change throughout the year that may inhibit the Feds’ budget from being balanced, such as underestimating costs, which happens more frequently than not these days. If such a scenario plays out, and a fiscal year does end with a deficit, such spending cuts can be incorporated into the next fiscal year’s budget and make up the difference on the back end. Under both plans, by the way, two-thirds of Congress would be needed to raise taxes, so it would be more likely than not that the budget would be balanced by spending cuts, not tax increases.

Hey, were all game for that.

Naturally, getting a balanced budget amendment adopted as part of the Constitution will not be an easy feat. And not because of the numerical hurdles and multiple steps needed to get any amendment through the Constitution (the process should be difficult). It’s because Democrats will kick and scream over the severe cuts to spending that would ensue after the adoption of a balanced budget amendment.

Heck, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his left-wing posse went apoplectic at a proposed spending reduction of $61 billion over the next seven months, calling it “extreme” and “draconian.” Just $61 billion. Thats it. To realize just how absurd such objections were, $61 billion is only a one-third of the money needed to cover the interest payments for U.S. bondholders this year alone.

Imagine when formal debate begins on the need to cut trillions in spending to rein in our deficit? Democrats may cut off their right arms in protest.

“This is exhibit A for why we need a balanced budget amendment,” responded Lee. “Politicians have reached the conclusion that they are the bad guys unless they say ‘yes’ to more spending, and it’s in light of that aspect of human nature that particularly tends to affect politicians, and that’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”

Unified GOP Caucus

“If this is going to get passed in the next two years,” says Hatch, “President Obama will have to step to the plate. Ultimately you’ll need presidential leadership because everybody knows that you’re not going to get spending under control until we take on entitlements as well. You cannot do it without presidential leadership.”

Remider: There’s always new presidential leadership come 2012. Well, we hope so anyway.

In the end, expect the GOP to have a unified caucus on a merger of the Hatch and Lee balanced budget amendments. It’s hard enough (almost impossible) to get one through when Democrats are in control of the Senate and the presidency, so the Republicans will need a unified front like they’ve had in the past.

A balanced budget amendment restricts the power of lawmakers, and that’s why the left despises it, and will work vigorously to defeat it. Get ready.

In the end, it is exactly what the Constitution needs. And esteemed economist Milton Friedman identified why two decades ago.

Said Friedman: “The amendment is very much in the spirit of the first 10 amendments — the Bill of Rights. Their purpose was to limit the government in order to free the people. Similarly, the purpose of the balanced-budget-and-tax-limitation amendment is to limit the government in order to free the people — this time from excessive taxation.”

If we cannot cut the Welfare State under these distressing economic conditions, then we’ll never do it. Now’s the time.

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