It’s time to really limit federal spending

Brandon Arnold Vice President of Government Affairs, National Taxpayers Union
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Washington’s row over the “sequester” spending reductions has once again focused attention on the bloated federal budget.

Somehow, this fight over $85 billion in cuts has overshadowed recent projections by the Congressional Budget Office that the federal government will add a staggering $7 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years.

Congress ought to be scrambling to address this enormous debt crisis. Yet, the Senate has not even passed a budget since April 2009.

The president has acknowledged there is a problem and paid lip service to a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction, but he has shown virtually no willingness to cut spending. On the contrary, in his recent State of the Union address, he proposed at least $83.4 billion in new expenditures (according to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation), and he continues to undermine the sequester.

The repeated failures of Congress and the president to address our debt problem prove that a mere federal statutory law isn’t going to cut it — we need a constitutional amendment that will provide permanent boundaries for lawmakers who have proven incapable of containing spending over the long term. We need a balanced budget amendment, or BBA.

One might think that if you’ve seen one BBA, you’ve seen them all, but that’s far from true — the proposals continue to evolve, but those on the table so far in this Congress are quite capable of tackling our unprecedented budgetary problems.

The first such bill introduced in this Congress was Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) BBA, appropriately designated H.J. Res. 1. Goodlatte’s BBA caps spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), requires a three-fifths supermajority of Congress to hike taxes, and prohibits expenditures from exceeding revenues unless a two-thirds supermajority of Congress allows for a temporary exception.

Goodlatte also authored a simpler BBA, H.J. Res. 2, which just prohibits Congress from spending more than the government collects in revenues under most circumstances. Nearly identical legislation received 261 votes in the House in 2011.

On the Senate side, Republican Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) and all 44 of his Republican colleagues have proposed S.J. Res. 7. This plan would combine traditional balanced budget amendment language with a spending cap set at 18 percent of GDP and a supermajority requirement for the passage of any tax or debt increases. If ratified, it too would methodically and effectively reduce the size of government.

Meanwhile, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) and his 28 bipartisan cosponsors have crafted the Business Cycle Balanced Budget Amendment (H.J. Res. 24). This innovative proposal would cap government expenditures based on the average revenues brought in over the previous three years, plus an additional allowance for inflation and population growth. The effect would be to accommodate concerns about occasional fluctuations in economic output. It is a creative, well-designed approach to reining in spending.

Of course, asking Congress to approve a BBA means asking politicians to tie their own hands and limit their spending, an act that history suggests will be difficult. Fortunately, there is another avenue. Article V of the Constitution allows states to call a limited amendment convention, one that could draft a BBA.

The bad news: to make this happen, 34 states must request such a convention. The good news: 19 states have already done so. So there’s already some momentum behind the state-led approach. And as President Obama and Congress continue to rack up huge deficits, this momentum should increase.

Whatever path it takes, the ratification of a BBA would be a huge victory for taxpayers. But rarely do huge victories come easily. Pushing Congress or state legislatures to act will require a groundswell of public support.

Brandon Arnold is the vice president of government affairs at the National Taxpayers Union.