The Constitutional Answer to Our Country’s Budget Problem

July 20, 2011

One change we need to correct this country’s unprecedented debt has a chance to move closer to reality this weekend.  The Senate will vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment as part of the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, a measure that can put America’s financial future back on track.

Simply put, we cannot keep spending money we do not have.

President Obama’s request to raise the debt ceiling beyond the current $14.3 trillion focuses only on the consequences of the problem – not its causes.  We need to address the real culprit – years and years of spending beyond our means.

At this moment of crisis, Americans have a right to wonder whether Congress is really serious about enacting safeguards against deficit spending.  The Senate has an opportunity to answer that question.

The Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution would require Congress to balance its budget each year and cap federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product – the average level of tax revenues since World War II.           

The math is simple:  Revenues should match expenditures.  The federal government is currently taking in approximately $2.2 trillion a year and spending $3.7 trillion.  That leaves us $1.5 trillion in the red – in just one year.

This is not the first time Senate Republicans have called for a balanced budget amendment.  On March 4, 1997, a balanced budget amendment failed to pass in the Senate by just one vote.  Since then, the nation’s debt has almost tripled. 

A majority of state constitutions, including ours, require balanced budgets.  Critics argue such an amendment at the federal level would be a fiscal straitjacket for Congress.  Most Americans think that is just what is needed.  A much more severe straitjacket is the grip that our growing debt has on the economy.

Economists say that debt above 90 percent of GDP slows economic growth by 1 percent each year.  With our debt nearing 100 percent of GDP, we cannot hope to rescue the economy and get Americans back to work under current fiscal policies.

History provides an insightful blueprint to today’s debate.  In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau, told House leaders:  “We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work.”  The same can be said today.  A costly stimulus, corporate bailouts, and higher health-care spending have increased the national debt by 35 percent since President Obama took office.  The latest figures show that his $789 billion economic stimulus plan amounted to an outrageous price tag of $278,000 per job.

The President and Congressional Democrats have called for massive tax increases to deal with the debt crisis.  With unemployment at 9.2 percent and economic growth under 2 percent, a tax increase would be a job killer – a principle the President publicly stated only months ago. 

The Constitution our Founding Fathers gave us was designed to “secure the blessings of liberty.”  It is safe to say they never envisioned today’s level of overspending.

As Congress debates the short-term fix of again raising the debt ceiling, we must remain focused on addressing the long-range problem – our government’s lack of fiscal discipline.  Our most effective solution is to send a Balanced Budget Amendment to the States for ratification.