Monday, July 18, 2011

The Balanced Budget Amendment

In a largely symbolic effort amid continuing budget talks, Congress this week will debate a balanced budget amendment that would require a balanced budget every fiscal year, limit federal spending to 18 percent of GDP, and require a super-majority in Congress to increase taxes, raise the debt limit, or run a deficit.  While the measure's chances of success are slim, at best, proponents and opponents have debated whether such an amendment would be in tension with the text, structure, and history of the rest of the Constitution.

Republican Senator Mike Lee, a driving force behind balanced budget amendment efforts in the Senate, made his case earlier this spring in this op-ed in the Washington Post.  Lee writes,

First, a balanced-budget requirement will ensure we do not continue to drive our country further into debt by trying to do all things for all people. . . .  Second, balancing our budget today will avoid even tougher choices tomorrow. . . .  Finally, a structural budget restraint is necessary to overcome Congress's insatiable appetite to spend. . . .  A balanced-budget amendment is the only way to ensure that Congress acts in the best interest of the country regardless of who is in power.

Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center and Dahlia Lithwick argued Friday at Slate that a balanced budget amendment is in direct conflict with the text, history, and structure of the Constitution and our own practices:

It's fairly certain that George Washington and the other Founders gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 would be appalled by the Lee amendment.  It is not an accident that the first two enumerated powers the Constitution vests in Congress are the power "to lay and collect Taxes . . . to pay the Debts and provide for the comon Defense and general Welfare of the United States" and "to borrow money on the credit of the United States."  The Constitution's broad textual grant of power was a direct response to the Articles of Confederation, which had imposed crippling restrictions on Congress's power to borrow and tax.  These restrictions plagued the Revolutionary War effort and made a deep and lasting impression on Washington and other war veterans.  Lee and the other proponents of shrinking the federal government to restore freedom misapprehend that the Constitution recognized there would be no freedom without a strong federal government to promote it.

Kendall and Lithwick's Slate piece draws on an earlier article by David Gans and David McNamee of the CAC in the "Strange Brew" series at the CAC web-site.


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During the late 1990's the federal government had a surplus. It was actually taking in more money than it was spending. At the time, there was talk about passing a balanced budget amendment'. The argument against doing so was that during a recession, it is in America's best interest that the government increase deficit spending in order to speed up the recessed economy.

That argument probably still holds true personally, I don't think leaders of the federal government will ever pass a balanced budget amendment.

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