Congress this week finds itself in a predicament of its own making.
To show how serious they are about solving America’s deepening fiscal crisis, Republicans insisted that the 2011 Budget Control Act require the House and the Senate to vote on a balanced budget amendment (BBA) before the end of the year. Yet from a range of BBA options—from weak to mild to robust—the House has chosen to vote on a version that does little to ensure less spending and lower taxes.
This is no way to amend the Constitution or solve the massive problem the country faces: a bloated federal government that operates far beyond its means, making unlimited promises that feed escalating debts and will cripple the U.S. economy, undermine America’s prosperity, and lead to national insolvency.
Federal spending in 2011 was $3.6 trillion, an all-time record. When adjusted for inflation, this is more than three times the peak level of World War II. Today’s enormous budget deficits—they have exceeded $1 trillion in each of the past three years—are a symptom of that excessive spending.
Indeed, government spending is the source of every fiscal consequence; it is spending that creates the need for taxes and borrowing. This is why formulations that call for reducing deficits through a mix of spending cuts and tax increases are misguided. Controlling spending is the key to balancing budgets.
In the immediate term, Congress should address this problem by pursuing a reform path that drives down federal spending and borrowing and gets to a balanced budget. Saving the American Dream is Heritage’s plan to do just that: balancing the federal budget in 10 years and keeping it balanced in the future—without raising taxes or neglecting our national defense. Starting immediately, Congress should take every opportunity to cut and cap federal spending, and that includes addressing the unsustainable costs of America’s entitlement programs.
A part of the long-term agenda to rein in government is an appropriate and sound amendment to the Constitution that would keep federal spending under control in subsequent years. Indeed, the principal reason for adopting a balanced budget constitutional amendment is to limit the size and scope of the federal government by limiting its spending.
Proponents have long advocated this extraordinary step because other methods of controlling spending—by rule or statute—have broken down. What was once considered part of the nation’s “unwritten” constitution—that as a rule the government should not spend beyond its means—has been lost. A constitutional rule, if properly written and enforced, would have more power than any legislative mechanism for maintaining a limit on spending.
As Heritage’s David Addington has previously stated, a BBA should do three core things.
- First, it should control spending, taxation, and borrowing by capping annual spending and requiring Congress to act by supermajority votes if Members wish to raise taxes. These requirements are especially necessary under current circumstances—prior to having seriously reduced spending and reformed entitlement programs, the main drivers of the country’s debt.
- Second, it should allow Congress by supermajority votes to waive temporarily compliance with the balanced budget requirement when it is essential to national security—the one core function that is the federal government’s exclusive constitutional responsibility.
- Third, it should provide for its own enforcement, specifically excluding courts from any enforcement and preventing government from just borrowing more money to meet the BBA requirement.
A BBA without these provisions doesn’t address the underlying spending problem, puts pressure on Congress to increase taxes or issue more debt rather than cut spending or reform entitlements, and invites unelected judges to insert themselves even more in the policymaking process. Which is to say that, rather than simplifying matters, a weak BBA would likely make the situation much worse.
To be sure, a more definitive BBA is no easy matter. Additional provisions bring complications, add more moving parts, and may introduce into the Constitution’s principled framework policy outcomes that should remain the prerogative of the legislative process. While considerable work has been done to develop a robust amendment, questions of amendment language (both in terms of operational construction and enforcement) have not yet sufficiently been resolved to meet the high and deliberative standard of the United States Constitution.
Nevertheless, the best way to press this discussion—which will surely not end with the current Congress—would be to place the strongest marker available on the table, aimed less at vote tallies and more at framing a national discussion on how to solve America’s most urgent problems.
And remembering that successful constitutional amendments represent the codification of a new consensus resulting from a settled political debate, the best way for this Congress to advance a BBA—and the cause of limited government—is to consistently, persistently, and successfully pursue spending reductions and fiscally responsible actions aimed at actually balancing the federal budget.