Published on TheHill.com on June 28, 2011
After the government has racked up a deficit of $1.5 trillion and over $14 trillion in debt, it’s obvious to most Americans that some fundamental reworking of the system that permitted such extravagance is desperately needed and quite overdue. To raise the debt limit in exchange for dollar-for-dollar cuts is one key element of an emerging deal. If Congress is to approve a $2.3 trillion increase in the debt ceiling, it must be matched by an equivalent amount of cuts in the 10-year budget. But what one Congress does, another can undo. And 10 years is a long time.
So this debt-limit negotiation is the time to seek the fundamental and permanent change that can only come through a constitutional amendment. The concept of a balanced-budget amendment has been kicking around for four decades, but now is the time to pass it through Congress.
The state legislatures have never been the obstacle to passing a balanced-budget amendment. Since each has such a requirement in its own constitution, state legislatures will likely look favorably on a parallel federal requirement. The problem has always been to pass it through Congress with the requisite two-thirds majority.
With the Obama administration desperate for a debt-limit increase and the Republicans holding vast new power at the state level as a result of the 2010 elections, now is the time to demand these constitutional reforms. To pass a debt-limit expansion in return only for possibly evanescent spending cuts spread over a decade would be to squander a historic opportunity for basic structural change in our government.
A constitutional amendment should include:
• A requirement for a balanced budget with deficits permitted only by vote of a supermajority. This requirement will give the forces of fiscal responsibility the bargaining leverage they need to hold the big spenders in check.
• No tax increases — or changes in the tax code — except through a supermajority of both houses of Congress.
• A cap on the percentage of GDP that can go to federal government spending; a permanent limit on the growth of government that can only be waived by a supermajority. The cap should not be onerous but should be appreciably less than the 25 percent of GDP the current federal appetite consumes. A phased-in ceiling of 21 percent — slightly above the historical norm — would be appropriate.
• A line-item veto. Passed in the Clinton years and thrown out by the court, it is now time to embed this change in the Constitution. It will give the president the leverage he needs to stop excessive spending and nutty earmarking. With a Democrat in the White House, now is probably the time to pass it.
• Give the president the authority to impound money voted by Congress. The legislative branch stripped presidents of this authority during the realignment of power that took place during the Nixon presidency. The time has come to restore this power so that the president can rein in parochial, special-interest-driven appropriations voted by Congress. Again, with a Democrat in the White House, this might be the ideal time to pass it.
Some will object that provisions for waiving these requirements by a supermajority in Congress will give the big-spending legislators just the opening they need to continue to rack up debt. But all will agree that some flexibility is needed in the event of war, natural disaster or economic necessity. A supermajority requirement will empower the most fiscally conservative of legislators and give them the bargaining power they need to force responsibility on the rest of Congress.
Without constitutional reform, the Republicans should not agree to raise the debt ceiling. The overspending of the past few years is so egregious that it is obvious that only permanent change embedded in our national charter can save us from ruin. And the political climate for such change is certainly ripe.