George F. Will: Constitutional amendment needed to force balanced budgets
Today's political discord is less durable and dangerous than the consensus that unites the political class more than ideology divides it: Year in and year out, in good times and bad, Americans should be given substantially more government goods and services than they should be asked to pay for. Lamentations about bipartisanship's paucity ignore the permanent, powerful bipartisan incentive to run enormous deficits, making big government cheaper for the moment. The burden of government borrowing part of its costs falls on future generations.
Federal debt held by the public was 39 percent of GDP 10 years ago; it is 75 percent today. Before last month's tax changes, the debt was projected to reach 91 percent in 10 years. No one knows, but no one should assume the tax changes will not hasten this. No one knows at what percentage the debt's deleterious effect on economic growth becomes severe; no sensible person doubts there is such a point.
We will discover that point the hard way, unless Congress promptly sends to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets. The amendment proposed by Glenn Hubbard, Columbia University's business-school dean, and Tim Kane, Hoover Institution economist at Stanford University, would limit each year's total spending to the median annual revenue of the previous seven years, allowing congressional supermajorities to authorize temporary deficits in emergencies.
The Constitution should be amended rarely and reluctantly. Today, however, a balanced-budget amendment is required.
For approximately 140 years, the Constitution's enumeration of powers, supposedly “few and defined” (Madison, Federalist 45), restrained the government. James Q. Wilson thought the collapse of his “legitimacy barrier” — did the Constitution empower the government to do this or that? — was complete in 1965 when Congress intruded into quintessentially state and local responsibility with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Christopher DeMuth, American Enterprise Institute president emeritus, notes that through the 1960s Great Society era, government's natural tendency to grow was inhibited by a bipartisan political ethic: Deficits were neither prudent nor seemly except when “borrowing was limited to wars, other emergencies, and investments such as territorial expansion and transportation, and incurred debts were paid down diligently.”
This tradition of borrowing for the future dissipated as government began routinely borrowing from the future. DeMuth notes that transfer payments to individuals are now about 70 percent of federal spending.
Critics warn Congress will evade a balanced-budget amendment by creative bookkeeping, stealthy spending through unfunded mandates on state governments and the private sector, declarations of spurious “emergencies” and other subterfuges. Such critics inadvertently make the amendment's case by assuming the political class is untrustworthy. And that the people's representatives unfortunately are representative of those who elect them.
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.