May 16, 2011
So, let's see a show of hands. Who really trusts politicians to do the right thing rather than the self-serving thing? Precisely. An argument being made by a scattering of conservatives against a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget is that there's no need to make any fundamental structural changes to the process of government in Washington; electing right-thinking Congressmen who respect the Constitution as is should suffice in restoring fiscal sanity and limited government. Good luck.
The argument that the nation can return to the Promised Land of limited government and fiscal prudence by just sending a better caliber of politician to Washington is a tad fanciful, akin to Model U.N. believing. Model U.N.s are staples of high schools and colleges; they're what students learn the U.N. should be like, rather than what the U.N. is -- a nest of vipers, rogues, and the terminally greedy. Sure, it would be splendid if the U.N. was one big, sustained Kumbaya, just like the propaganda claims. But hard reality is hard reality.
That's not to say that U.S. Representatives and Senators are vipers, rogues, and greedy - well, not all of them, anyway. But to rely mainly on Congress, which is composed of men and women who, generally speaking, are parochial and self-obsessed, to legislate the national government into boundaries that more closely approximate the pre-FDR era is a reach.
Even if the planets aligned in 2012 to give Americans a 113th Congress of latter day Jeffersons and Madisons who legislated limited national government and budget-prudence, where is it written that subsequent Congresses, perhaps comprised of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer clones, won't undo the 113th Congress' handiwork? What's wrought by legislation can be un-wrought by the same.
Look at the budget-busting, government aggrandizing 111th Congress (the Reid-Pelosi Congress), which was aided and abetted by the left's anti-Reagan, President Barak Obama. The Democrat-dominated 111th Congress set land speed records for driving government spending and borrowing to dizzying, unheard of heights, thereby signaling that Greek profligacy has nothing on American know-how in the profligacy racket.
The argument can be advanced that virtuous voters would need to keep electing the Jeffersons and Madisons to Congress, but the Republic's history shows that very human voters don't always elect the wisest and most public-spirited to populate and helm the Congress, much less fill the presidency. Since the 1930s, the nation has had New Deal, Fair Deal, Great Society, and Obama Society Congresses that have run roughshod over the Constitution, expanding government far beyond the founders' intent, plundering the federal treasury, pushing credit card government, and setting the stage for the looming crisis in government the nation faces today.
What good, then, is a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, along the lines that Utah Senator Mike Lee proposes, for example, if Congresses are going to disregard constitutional limits and do as they darn well please?
First, there are some constitutional restraints that keep Washington from going Hugo Chavez on the nation; in other words, from sliding into squalid statism. There's certainly more competition than collusion among the branches, which provides a modicum of checks and balances. The states still give some pushback to Uncle Sam. There are electoral checks and balances and free speech and assembly rights that put the brakes on government - somewhat, at least. But thanks to the "living Constitution" heresy long embraced by liberal jurists, federal courts and successive Congresses have blown massive holes through the General Welfare and Commerce Clauses in the Constitution, for instance, enough to sail big government supertankers to ports across the country.
If Jefferson and Madison could be among their countrymen again, it's a fair bet that they would see the need to amend the Constitution to explicitly narrow Congress' range of action concerning the public purse and its power to lay and increase taxes.
Senator Lee's proposed constitutional amendment mandates a balanced budget, yes, but it also limits government spending to no more than 18% of the nation's GDP, unless there are wars or national emergencies. Tax hikes, debt limit increases, and "specific" deficits all would require two-thirds majorities to pass.
Any legislator in Washington or state capitols can attest to the challenge of mustering a simple majority to pass legislation - it's usually a tough task. Imagine how much more formidable it would be to reach two-thirds agreement among Members of Congress to bust the debt limit or increase taxes. The two-thirds requirement in Senator Lee's proposal is a tangible brake on spendthrift government and trigger-happy congressional taxers. Simple legislative majorities are hard to get ordinarily but much easier to obtain than supermajorities.
How much of Mr. Obama's spending proposals would have hit the skids had Senator Lee's balanced budget amendment been the law? Hard to speculate, but Mr. Lee's balanced budget amendment would have at least greatly complicated matters for spend-happy Democrats and Republican suckerfish.
Senator Lee's balanced budget amendment, containing the provisions outlined, is winning the support of conservative Marco Rubio and libertarian-leaning Rand Paul, notably among Senate Republicans.
Tellingly, there's no rush among Democrats to co-sponsor Senator Lee's amendment legislation. Colorado's Democrat Senator Mark Udall has expressed support for a balanced budget amendment, and some of the usual suspects among the dwindling Blue Dog Caucus have signed onto balanced budget proposals in the House, but not an inkling of support from the liberal ideologues who run the House and Senate Democrat Caucuses.
Why is that, one wonders? Might it be that liberal congressional leaders fear that Mr. Lee's proposed amendment, if sent to the states and passed, would, in fact, seriously impede their ability to spend, borrow, and tax? Surely, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren't off the balanced budget band wagon because they share some conservatives' qualms about violating other provisions of the Constitution. After all, Democrats are the ones who've made trampling constitutional limits a thriving cottage industry for decades.
It's important to stress that Senator Lee's balanced budget amendment legislation and facsimiles aren't panaceas. When it comes to government, human wiliness, and chicanery, no law -- constitutional or otherwise -- however shrewdly constructed, is foolproof.
Federal government spending, limited to eighteen percent of the GDP annually, inevitably means that Congresses will routinely spend to the limit, but that's far better than the threat or reality of Congresses gobbling up ever-higher percentages of GDP to patronize constituencies and special interests to build an Olympus on the Potomac. Campaigns will still be necessary to downsize the federal government by eliminating unconstitutional functions that Washington has assumed over the years or divesting those functions to return them to the states. Federal courts need a plentitude of dedicated originalist appointees.
But no one should expect Congress to bind itself, session after session, through successive Congresses. Jefferson and Madison were rare birds. Key constitutional amendments, like the balanced budget amendment that Senator Lee is offering, does a more effective job of binding Congress than statutory measures. Clarifying and refining key constitutional provisions are the next major steps in restoring and advancing the founders' vision of a free people served - not menaced - by government.