Concerns About the Proposed Balanced Budget Amendment

Virtually every conservative and Republican politician, pundit, writer, and broadcaster is enthusiastically touting the Balanced Budget Amendment proposal. If I was of a more cynical nature I might think that Congress is trying to rid itself of some of the tedious responsibility the Constitution places on it. Considering the seriousness of any proposed Constitutional Amendment, we ought to spend some time reading and understanding its implications before giving it our support.

Section I of the proposed Amendment says,

“Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.”

If you are a fan of Constitutional Amendments that sounds fine; it is concise, to the point and reasonably well worded. It does not leave a lot of “wiggle room” for the courts and politicians to avoid understanding exactly what the Amendment is supposed to accomplish.

Since the purpose of an Amendment is to change, expand, or repeal the rules for government written by the Founders into the original Constitution, before we allow ourselves to be stampeded into something future generations will have to live with and very well may regret; we ought to carefully consider the consequences. History has shown that the U.S. Constitution including the Bill of Rights is the best plan of government ever devised by man. Although, for the past century, its value has been demonstrated mostly by the consequences following its many breaches rather than by strict compliance to it by our elected officials.

The fact that so many people feel that a Constitutional Amendment is necessary is prima facie evidence that one or more of the branches of government is failing to live up to the oath of office to defend and support the Constitution each of its members took before assuming their position. We do not have to look far to identify the culprits, either. Both the Legislative and Executive branches are ignoring the restrictions on taxing and spending in the original Constitution and taxing us into poverty and spending us into oblivion. Thomas Jefferson made the complaint against George III in The Declaration of Independence, that “he has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

Jefferson knew nothing about the EPA, DOE, DOL, or any of the many czars currently accomplishing this chore for the Obama Administration, so we have to assume that he was referring in particular to the “Quartering Act” and the occupation of Boston. But he could just as well have been writing about any of “alphabet soup” of government agencies jammed into every nook and cranny of Washington, D.C.

Assuming that we really do need a Constitutional Amendment to enforce fiscal discipline on our elected officials and that they will abide by a new Amendment more faithfully than they have abided by the Constitution itself in the past, the Amendment as written above seems to be adequate for the job — if it stopped with those words. However it does not. The proposed Amendment contains 618 words making it the longest Constitutional Amendment to date.

In writing Amendments brevity is the key to effectiveness. Every unnecessary or carelessly chosen word becomes a loophole through which the courts, politicians and lawyers can push socialist policies, or that societal busybodies can use to take away a little more of our liberties. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment, containing only 445 words, is used to grant birthright citizenship to the children of foreigners who happen to be born on U.S. soil; to claim the right for same sex marriage; and, to give the federal government the authority to decide the qualifications for voting in national, state and local elections. The same pattern is true for the other ill thought-out and excessively worded amendments added to the Constitution since 1791.

Section 2, provides that…

“Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote.”

This may be okay for those willing to spend almost twenty percent of their work life laboring for the federal government. However, keep in mind that the federal government is only a small portion of the government bodies we have to support with our taxes. The spending limit imposed by this section is based on the aggregate GDP of all fifty states. Each of those states has hundreds of taxing and spending bodies “harassing their people and eating out their substances”. The combined outlay of all the government bodies in the United States, federal, state, county and local is much closer to 50% or more than to 20%. This section guarantees that the federal government will always be entitled to at least 18% of the produce of our labor, to spend on whatever it sees fit; more if it thinks it is necessary.

Section 3 is one of the more troubling sections of the proposed amendment. It provides that…

“Prior to each fiscal year, the President shall transmit to the Congress a proposed budget for the United States Government for that fiscal year in which—
‘‘(1) total outlays do not exceed total receipts; and
‘‘(2) total outlays do not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year.”

What is troubling about this section is that it puts the onus on the President to determine the budgetary needs of the country each year, wiping out a four-hundred year portion of our heritage. If History is indeed our best predictor of the future, future Presidents will claim that the Constitution (this Amendment) gives the Executive Branch the “power of the purse” overturning four hundred years of custom and Constitutional law. As we pointed out in a previous post, the power of the purse has always resided in the people’s assembly. Before the Constitution it rested with the colonial general assemblies. Since the Constitution it has rested in the House of Representatives.

The Remaining eight sections all contain similar opportunities for future courts and politicians to mold in into about anything they desire it to be. The piece de resistance, however, is found in section 11, which says, “This article shall take effect beginning with the fifth fiscal year beginning after its ratification.’’

It takes on average, two to five years to get an Amendment through the Amendment process. This section adds an additional five or six years, depending on the time of the year it is finally ratified, before it takes effect. By that time we will either be a socialist dictatorship or we will have won the struggle with the socialists in government and will not need the amendment.

Space prevents a complete exposition of this question. We have provided a copy of the proposed Amendment here and challenged readers to consider some of the possible pitfalls inherent in any changes to our Constitution, no matter how logical and necessary they seem at the time. As my mom used to say “eat what’s on your plate before going back for more”. Enforce adherence to the Constitution we have, before attempting to add more requirements that are likely to be ignored or circumvented when government finds such action desirable for its agenda.

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9 responses to “Concerns About the Proposed Balanced Budget Amendment

  1. clear and concise. Excellent analysis.

    For too long now, Congress has willy-nilly and irresponsibly delegated its constitutional powers to an increasingly imperial Executive. This is why I continue to view Congress as the principle culprit in our headlong slide toward authoritarianism. Only dyed-in-wool Tea Party candidates to reverse this awful course.

    Re the BBA, you’re absolutely right. It must be brief and to the point with little wiggle room for deliberate–and inevitable—misinterpretation who will try to tease every manner of self-serving meaning they can. Once simplified and clarified, I believe there is such a huge groundswell of support for it in the country that it would require less than one year to be ratified by the states. If the amendment granting 18 yr olds the right to vote can be ratified in something under 8 months, certainly the BBA can be as well. .

    • jdelaney3, You may be right about the quick passage, but that would still give the Congress six or seven years before they had to take action. The part that really bothers me is the 18% of GDP cap on spending. Any cap – temporary – on spending should be by statutory law not Constitutional law. Example, Amendment 16 authorized the government to tax income. The Revenue Act of 1913 actually authorized the levy.
      The real answer is to bring government spending in line with the Constitution. We are currently spending somewhere around 25% – I believe – of our GDP. The overwhelming majority of that goes for unconstitutional expenditures. I am quite confident that we could run a constitutionally limited government on 5% or less of the GDP. The BBA as proposed, would close the door on ever getting the government back within the constraints of the Constitution. Every Amendment passed to date has carried with it unintended consequences that negatively altered our form of government. I fear the BBA would not be an exception to the rule.

  2. You’re quite correct, Jerry. I was only talking about ratification, not when I thought it should go into effect. Personally, I believe gov’t should but cut, program by program, dept. by unconstitutional dept, by minum 40% right off the bat. If we apply the constitutional restraints AND pass the BBA, constitutional order and ecomomic stability would be restored. I just don’t h think Congress has the spine, clarity and constitutional integrity to pull it off. Only Tea Party candidates in sufficient number in both the House and Senate can restore commonsense and constitutional governance.

  3. I we limit the BBA to only the first section, I could agree.

  4. If Congress limited its appropriations to its lawful enumerated powers, they couldn’t possibly spend a sum as huge as 18% of the GDP. If passed the proposed BBA will effectively repeal the enumerated powers, and transform the federal government into one of general and unlimited powers; instead of enumerated powers. The proposed Balanced Budget Amendment is a power grab!

  5. Is it just me or does section three centralize power in the executive branch. The thing the framers feared the most, and the very reason for the separation of powers.

  6. Spence, you and jdelaney3 could have saved me a lot of time if you had written these comments yesterday before I wrote my next post. Thanks anyway.