Dear Senator Pryor, why not pass the Balanced Budget Amendment? (“Thirsty Thursday”, Open letter to Senator Pryor)

Dear Senator Pryor,

Why not pass the Balanced  Budget Amendment? As you know that federal deficit is at all time high (1.6 trillion deficit with revenues of 2.2 trillion and spending at 3.8 trillion).

On my blog I took you at your word and sent you over 100 emails with specific spending cut ideas. However, I did not see any of them in the recent debt deal that Congress adopted. Now I am trying another approach. Every week from now on I will send you an email explaining different reasons why we need the Balanced Budget Amendment. It will appear on my blog on “Thirsty Thursday” because the government is always thirsty for more money to spend.

There’s nothing nutty about a balanced-budget amendment
In fact, it makes a lot of sense
Thursday, July 21, 2011
By Dick Thornburgh

A late entry in the budget deficit-debt ceiling talkathon in Washington is increasing support for a constitutional requirement that the federal budget be balanced each and every year.

Doctrinaire liberals will no doubt characterize this proposal as a nutty one, but careful scrutiny of such an amendment to our Constitution demonstrates its potential to prevent future train wrecks in the budgeting process.

Coupled with a presidential line-item veto and separate capital budgeting (which differentiates investments from current outlays), a constitutional budget-balancing requirement makes sense. These tools already are available to most governors and state legislatures. And they work.

The current debate in the Congress will likely include the following arguments usually raised against a balanced-budget amendment.

First, it will be argued that the amendment would “clutter up” our basic document in a way contrary to the intention of the founding fathers.

This is clearly wrong. The framers of the Constitution contemplated that amendments would be necessary to keep it abreast of the times. It already has been amended on 27 occasions.

Moreover, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, one of the major preoccupations was how to liquidate the Revolutionary War debts of the states. Certainly, it would have been unthinkable to the framers that the federal government itself would systematically run at a deficit, decade after decade. Indeed, the Treasury did not begin to follow such a practice until the mid-1930s.

Second, critics will argue that the adoption of a balanced-budget amendment would not solve the deficit problem overnight.

This is correct, but begs the issue. Serious supporters of the amendment recognize that a phasing-in period of five or 10 years would be required to reach a zero deficit. During this interim period, however, budget makers would be disciplined to meet declining deficit targets in order to reach a balanced budget by the established deadline.

As pointed out by former Commerce Secretary Peter G. Peterson, such “steady progress toward eliminating the deficit will maintain investor confidence, keep long-term interest rates headed down and keep our economy growing.”

Third, it will be argued that such an amendment would require vast cuts in social services and entitlements or defense expenditures.

Not necessarily. True, these programs would have to be paid for on a current basis rather than heaped on the backs of upcoming generations. Certainly, difficult choices would have to be made about priorities and levels of program funding. But the very purpose of the amendment is to discipline the executive and legislative branches actually to debate these choices and not to propose or perpetuate vast spending programs without providing the revenues to fund them.

The amendment would, in effect, make the president and Congress fully accountable for their spending and taxing decisions, as they should be.

Fourth, critics will say that a balanced-budget amendment would prevent or hinder our capacity to respond to national defense or economic emergencies.

This concern is easy to counter. Any sensible amendment proposal would feature a “safety valve” to exempt deficits incurred in response to such emergencies, requiring, for example, a three-fifths “super majority” in both houses of Congress. Such action should, of course, be based on a finding that such an emergency actually exists.

Fifth, it will be said that a balanced-budget amendment would be “more loophole than law” and might be easily circumvented.

The experience of the states suggests otherwise. Balanced-budget requirements are now in effect in all but one of the 50 states and have served them well.

Moreover, the line-item veto, available to 43 governors, would assure that any specific congressional overruns (or loophole end-runs) could be dealt with by the president. The public’s outcry, the elective process and the courts would also provide backup restraint on any tendency to simply ignore a constitutional directive.

In the final analysis, most of the excuses raised for not enacting a constitutional mandate to balance the budget rest on a stated or implied preference for solving our deficit dilemma through the “political process” — that is to say, through responsible action by the president and Congress.

But that has been tried and found wanting, again and again.

Surely, this country is ready for a simple, clear and supreme directive that its elected officials fulfill their fiscal responsibilities. A constitutional amendment is the only instrument that will meet this need effectively. Years of experience at the state level argue persuasively in favor of such a step. Years of debate have produced no persuasive arguments against it.

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson put it best:

“To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us down with perpetual debt.”

That is the aim of a balanced-budget amendment. Reform-minded members of Congress should choose to support such an amendment to our Constitution as a means of resolving future legislative crises and ending “credit card” government once and for all.

A nutty idea? Not by a long shot.

Dick Thornburgh, of counsel to the Pittsburgh law firm K&L Gates, is a former U.S. attorney general and governor of Pennsylvania.
First published on July 21, 2011 at 12:00 am
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