“The American Dream,” said Ronald Reagan, “is not that every man must be level with every other man. The American Dream is that every man must be free to become whatever God intends he should become.”
Reagan understood — as did few presidents before, and none since — that unsustainable government borrowing and spending would threaten the economic opportunity that makes America exceptional.
Writing in his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan said, “I don’t think that we’ll solve the problem of the deficit until three things happen: We need more discipline on spending in Congress. We need a Constitutional Amendment requiring Congress to balance the budget. And we need to give our presidents a line item veto.”
Since he left office, that prescription for action has become even more prescient — the federal debt now surpasses $14 trillion, and President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress show no signs of ending their spending spree.
In the face of a Democratic-controlled Congress, Reagan worked hard to enact a balanced-budget amendment. He knew that such an amendment would be the end of business as usual in Washington. As he put it in September of 1982, if the amendment was ratified, “from that moment on, the watchword to Washington will be: Start shaping up, or you may be shipping out.”
Reagan campaigned tirelessly through the summer of 1982 to build public support for the measure. The Senate considered it first. On August 4, 1982, it passed that body by a vote of 69-31. Two months later, on October 1, the House took up the measure — and though it won a majority of the votes cast, it failed to reach the necessary two-thirds threshold, and went down by a vote of 236-187.
Without the discipline of a balanced-budget amendment, the Democratic Congresses Reagan had to work with continued their spending spree on borrowed money, necessitating further increases in the debt ceiling on his watch. The last debt ceiling extension he signed into law raised the limit to $2.8 trillion.
Since then, of course, Congress’s addiction to spending borrowed money has increased exponentially, and his prescription for necessary action has become even more prescient: Today, the debt stands more than five times as high as it was when Reagan left office — and yet they’re coming back for more.
The good news is that more than 200 center-right organizations and local Tea Party groups have now joined forces to pressure Congress to stop the borrowing spree. Working with key congressional conservatives — including Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania— they have created the Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge to force Congress to reverse course.
The Cut, Cap, and Balance plan would make it so that the federal debt ceiling could only be increased if three stringent conditions were met first:
1) Cut: Serious cuts in the federal budget that will be enacted now, to reduce the deficit immediately.
2) Cap: Spending caps that cannot be tampered with, which will put federal spending on a path to a balanced budget without tax increases.
3) Balance: Congress would pass a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and send it to the states for ratification. The language must be strong, such as that proposed by Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Lee’s version of the amendment has a requirement that a supermajority would be required to raise taxes, in addition to the balancing of revenues and expenses.
Reagan was more than just the Great Communicator. He was a man of action, who for decades before his presidency embodied the principles of self-reliance and preached the gospel of limited government. He knew that, while spending cuts could be unpopular, the federal government’s growth projections were unsustainable and would be a grave impediment to the economic growth that undergirds the American Dream.
Ronald Reagan is no longer with us, but his spirit lives on and animates the conservative movement. In this, the year of the 100th anniversary of his birth, we can honor his memory by enacting the Cut, Cap and Balance plan to force spending discipline on the federal government, and once again make the American Dream possible for all.
Bill Pascoe is the Executive Vice President of Citizens for the Republic, the political action committee originally founded by Ronald Reagan in 1977.