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The balanced budget amendment; 'Sensible'

Confronted with a public debt of more than $1 trillion, and a Congress that can only agree on larger deficits, Americans are demanding that the United States government balance its budget.

Voter surveys consistently reveal that the nation's fiscal problems are of highest priority to four out of five Americans, and a full two-thirds are demanding a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.

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This bipartisan public mandate, and the federal government's increasing awareness of it, is focusing attention on the tax limitation/balanced budget amendment (SJR 58/HJR 350), which now has the endorsement/support of more than 60 US senators, 200 members of the House of Representatives and the president of the country.

The amendment would (re-)introduce into the Constitution three fiscal ''norms.'' First, planned (budgeted) federal outlays should be no greater than planned federal receipts: that is, the Congress should not plan a deficit. Second, planned receipts should not grow more rapidly than the underlying general economy, that is, the burden of federal taxation should not grow from year-to-year. Third -- implicit in the first two -- actual federal outlays should not grow more rapidly than the underlying general economy, that is, the burden of federal spending should not grow year-to-year.

A deficit could be planned for any given year, providing three-fifths of the membership of each house agree -- and vote -- approving the overexpenditure. Each year that the Congress wants to spend in excess of budgeted receipts it will have to vote again.

Authority to increase taxes by more than the growth rate of the economy would be retained by the legislature - but only if it could muster a majority of the full membership of each house and concurrently pass a bill setting forth the specific new taxes necessary to finance the excess. The amendment waives the balanced budget requirement during times of declared war.

These important annual voting rules, required to violate the norm, will alert the public, spotlighting any congressional attempts to overspend or overtax beyond the amendment limits. Citizens then have opportunity to give their blessing or objection to the proposed increases, by their voting power over Congress.

Let's take a close look at some key issues:

1. There are those who feel the basic resolution to our federal economic quagmire lies in electing ''good men'' to public office. Certainly we should seek the best men and women available. But the nation's economic problems are largely traceable to an institutional defect that has evolved in the way we do our political business. Even the best legislators have become overwhelmed by a massive proliferation of special interest groups. The result is ''special interest budgeting'' at the expense of the broader interest. All members of Congress, to one degree or another, have become captives of the congressional spending bias. Growing congressional support for the amendment is ''Exhibit A'' that individual legislators recognize that Congress itself cannot solve this problem but needs the assistance and discipline of a constitutional rule.

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2. Some claim that the amendment represents an unwarranted constraint on Congress's power to deal with the fiscal affairs of the nation. A closer look at constitutional history reveals that the provisions of this ''new'' amendment simply reinstate implicit constitutional controls that governed congressional taxing and spending habits until the 1900s. With the adoption of the 16th Amendment in 1913, we gave the federal structure the resources of the personal income tax with which to expand exponentially the power and scope of Washington. Also, until the 1930s, the unwritten ''fiscal constitution'' dictated that budgets be balanced except in times of armed conflict. The cumulative effect of the deviation from these two fiscal norms has been a profound erosion of the Jeffersonian concept of limited federal government.

3. Others claim that Congress's own directive to itself -- the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1977 -- is enough to curb taxes and the federal deficit. The history of deficits since 1974 does not confirm this view. Furthermore, this argument overlooks the fact that laws passed by one Congress can be repealed by another, either directly or by ignoring the earlier mandate. Legislation requiring a balanced budget in fiscal 1981 was enacted by the 95th Congress in 1979. Actual result? A deficit of more than $55 billion. Mere legislation -- or pledges by Congress to do better -- are not enough. After all, mere laws control men -- only constitutions control government.

4. Some speculate that Congress might avoid amendment restraints by imposing increased costs on the private sector through greater demands for regulation. While such regulation would act as an additional burden, inhibiting real economic growth, it should be pointed out that the amendment discourages such perverseness by providing Congress with a strong incentive to stimulate real economic growth. In a nutshell, they can spend more -- if the economy produces more.

Without an amendment to balance America's checkbook, our legacy has been inflation, unemployment, high interest rates, excessive taxation, and recession. The $1 trillion public debt is a mortgage on our future and the future of our country's generations unborn. Americans are feeling this burden, and are demanding that fiscal responsibility be assumed by our federal representatives. The means for meeting that demand lies in the passage of the Amendment to Limit Taxes and Balance the Budget.

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