Nobody should take pride in the debt ceiling agreement by which government default on its fiscal obligations was averted. The agreement was necessary only because for decades the Republicans and Democrats have been making fiscal policy with gross negligence and irresponsibility approaching, if not exceeding, the criminal. A balanced budget amendment should be added to the U. S. Constitution to avert the otherwise inevitable future debt-related crises which will arise due to Republican and Democratic fiscal irresponsibility.
Watching the Sunday morning news and commentary shows on the legislation averting default I was impressed—not favorably impressed, but impressed nonetheless—by the unadulterated drivel being pumped into the air by the assorted talking heads. They were praising the ability of President Biden and Speaker McCarthy to reach an agreement, saying this showed how government works through compromise with each side getting something, nobody getting everything, blah, blah, blah. Totally ignored was the fact that the sole reason for the crisis in the first place was the basic dishonesty and irresponsibility, over the last several decades, of both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress and the White House, when it comes to making fiscal policy.
Neither party bases fiscal policy on facts or logic. Both parties make policy based on fantasies, dreams and delusions. The Democrats say that if you simply tax “the rich” with high enough rates, you’ll get all the money necessary to finance their big-spending programs. The Republicans, since 1980, have said that if you cut taxes enough you’ll produce great enough economic growth and productivity to generate enough revenue to finance their schemes. Next to our brain dead fiscal policymakers, the Three Stooges seem like Einsteins.
The need for the addition of an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced budget should be obvious. Currently, the Constitution has no such provision. In fact, neither “balanced” nor “budget” is in the Constitution. The Constitution simply says tax and spending policies are to be made through the legislative process. It imposes no limit on how much money can be printed, coined, or borrowed to finance congressional spending policies.
Critics of a balanced budget amendment say that no such amendment is necessary. Congress and the President already have the power to balance the budget through appropriate tax and spending policies. All that’s needed is discipline. If fiscal policymakers have the requisite discipline, no amendment is necessary. If they lack that discipline, no such amendment will do any good anyway.
But contrary to what the critics say, it’s possible that a balanced budget amendment could actually help fiscal policymakers develop the discipline they currently lack. Democrats don’t want to cut spending and Republicans don’t want to raise taxes for fear of being voted out of office. The absence of any constitutionally-imposed limits on printing, coining, borrowing, and spending money makes it easier for them to embrace their fiscal fantasies, avoid fiscal realities, and maintain their toxic policies of ever-increasing spending while cutting taxes. But if the Constitution explicitly requires that the federal budget be balanced, policymakers can then say that tax increases and spending cuts are mandated by the Constitution and that they have no choice but to comply lest their actions be ruled unconstitutional.
The addition of any formal amendment to the Constitution is difficult, which is why only 27 amendments have been added to the Constitution since it was first implemented in 1789, and the addition of a balanced budget amendment would likely prove to be especially difficult. Normally the addition of an amendment to the Constitution requires it to be passed by a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress and then approved by three-fourths of the states. It is virtually certain that Congress would refuse to pass a balanced budget amendment since its adoption would significantly reduce Congress’s power to act as irresponsibly as it currently loves to do.
But the use of another method of amending the Constitution might make passage of a balanced budget amendment less difficult. If two-thirds of the states so demand, then the Constitution requires that Congress convene a new constitutional convention to draft a proposed amendment which, if approved by three-fourths of the states, would become part of the Constitution, even without congressional approval. Such a method has never been used to amend our Constitution, but state legislatures might be amenable to using this method to do an end run around the Congress and add a balanced budget amendment anyway. After all, the constitutions of 49 states, including Texas, already require balanced budgets. State legislatures might be persuaded to believe that if they must adopt balanced budgets, the Congress should be required to do so as well. Advocates of a balanced budget amendment should try this approach.
It’s sad to think that less than 25 years ago President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich were able to produce balanced budgets with large enough surpluses to begin paying down the national debt and that it was not unreasonable to believe the debt could be paid off by 2010. The massive Bush and Trump tax cuts, coupled with the costs of fighting seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, destroyed those hopes. Now we are saddled with an apparently endlessly growing debt requiring interest payments of $400 billion a year, which do nothing to pay down the almost $32 trillion dollars owed. A balanced budget amendment won’t cure our fiscal woes overnight, but its addition to the Constitution will be a small but necessary first step down a new path to something almost unheard of today at the national level—fiscal responsibility.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton from 1987 until 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.