Back to Basics with the Balanced Budget Amendment
House Chamber, Washington, D.C.
November 2, 2011
The International Monetary Fund estimated that as of Halloween night, the debt of this nation surpassed its entire economy for the first time since World War II. We all know that if you live beyond your means today you must live below your means tomorrow. That’s the tomorrow that our generation has created for the children who were dressed up as princesses and cowboys when they came calling on Monday. That is our generation’s eternal shame, and something that our generation must set right.
The House is expected soon to vote on a balanced budget amendment that is critical to stop this plunder of our children. There are a number of excellent proposals out there and I would have no trouble supporting any of them.
I do rise, however, to express the hope that the final product of these deliberations proves worthy of the wisdom that guided the drafting of the Constitution.
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 realized that they couldn’t possibly foresee the circumstances and conditions that may confront future generations and therefore 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 those 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.
Many have quoted Jefferson’s 1798 letter to John Taylor as support for a balanced budget amendment. Here’s what he actually wrote:
“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.”
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 light or transient reasons. The experience of the states has warned 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 if borrowing is prohibited, there exists a natural limit to the ability and 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 – and the best and most effective way to invoke that natural limit is a simple prohibition.
At the end of the week, I will introduce this 27-word amendment and ask my colleagues to consider it with the many others that are now before the Congress. As I said, I like virtually all of them – they all accomplish the purpose of restraining the reckless deficits that our generation has produced. But 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.