Congress has wrecked the federal budget so badly that only a constitutional amendment, if even that, can ward off economic catastrophe.
As described in previous columns, last month’s discretionary spending agreement was so indefensibly exorbitant that it could portend a federal debt crisis of immense proportions. (The likelihood of an economic crash was significantly increased by President Trump’s dangerously foolish March 1 decision to impose large tariffs on steel and aluminum imports.) Perhaps the only thing that could convince debt issuers not to panic would be signs of serious movement towards fiscal rectitude.
What’s needed is not pursuit of the same tired old “balanced budget amendment” idea that has been bandied about for half a century. It will never pass: Liberals hate it, and a large subset of conservatives fear it could either hobble the military or lead to tax hikes.
Also, some of us are loathe to amend the Constitution except at last resort.
Well, we’ve reached the last resort. In lieu of a BBA, a constitutional limit on Congress’ annual ability to spend profligately on domestic programs could slowly ratchet down the debt pressure without making anyone fear harsh consequences or precipitate action. Especially since the new spending baseline is already wildly extravagant by all historical standards, anything that allows inflation-based growth from that baseline should scare nobody.
The best solution would segregate defense spending so that national security decisions are based on demonstrated need rather than political tradeoffs between the military and domestic purses. It also would eliminate the ability of a Senate minority to filibuster annual spending bills that remain within reasonable limits. It should promote a very strong bias in favor of spending restraint, but should allow at least the chance of a super-duper-majority “escape hatch” for times of great, demonstrated need.
And its goal should be to reduce, to a manageable and sustainable level, the national debt as a proportion of the overall economy. Until 2008, the only time that proportion exceeded 70 percent was during World War II. Although even 70 percent is too high for comfort, it is almost certainly at least sustainable without causing economic collapse – and it’s immensely better than today’s 105 percent.
Hence, I propose the following constitutional amendment – longer than I’d like, at 262 words, but still significantly shorter than Amendments 20 and 25 – which I believe could garner strong-majority public support:
Section 1. The annual Appropriations bill for the Department of Defense shall be considered by the House and the Senate separately from any other Appropriation. It shall be passed by means of a majority vote of each chamber, without need of any supermajority to bring it to a vote, notwithstanding any other procedural rule of either house.
Section 2. The aggregate budget authority for all Appropriations for Discretionary Programs apart from the Department of Defense shall be limited to an annual increase no greater than the official percentage increase in the national Consumer Price Index for the most recent full calendar year, with the following exceptions, and under the following rules of procedure. Rule One: Any Appropriation covered by this Section, and in accordance with the first sentence of this Section, shall be passed by means of a majority vote of each house, and without any need of any supermajority to bring it to a vote, notwithstanding any other procedural rule of either house. Exception One: In any year in which the most recently reported federal debt (including both debt held by the public and intragovernmental debt) is less than 70 percent of the most recently reported Gross Domestic Product, the Appropriation-increase provision in sentence one of this Section shall be doubled, or 10 percent, whichever is less. Exception Two: Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, the limits on budget authority in this section shall be waived upon a 70 percent affirmative vote of the full seated membership (not just of those voting that day) of each house of Congress.
There: Never again, except in emergencies recognized by 70 percent of Congress, could Congress go on a spending spree like the one it approved last month. Never again could it be so easy to hold national security needs hostage to a congressional minority’s desire for more money to throw at favored constituencies.
Granted, the largest driver of the national debt is the basket of “entitlements” not subject to annual congressional spending decisions. But this amendment, if enacted, would restrain Congress from recklessly adding to the fiscal pressures those entitlements cause.
Let’s do it.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.
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