Here’s How State Legislators Can FINALLY Fix The National Debt In 2018

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Jesse Hathaway Research Fellow, Heartland Institute
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Now that 2017 is in the books, Americans across the country are working to keep their New Year’s resolutions so that 2018 might be better than years past. One resolution politicians in Washington, DC should make, but almost certainly won’t, is ending out-of-control government spending and reckless waste.

Despite previous Congress’ failure to rein in spending, 2018 can be the year serious fiscal reforms are finally implemented—but only if state elected officials resolve to step up and take charge by leading the country toward effective, sensible policies. This would best be accomplished with the passage of a state-led federal balanced budget amendment.

The federal deficit is the difference between incoming revenue and outgoing expenditures. In 1980, the national government’s spending exceeded revenues by $73.8 billion, equivalent to taking about $325 from every American man, woman, and child. In 2017, the federal deficit was $666 billion. This amounts to a per-person debt of $2,039.81, a shocking and troubling increase compared to the deficit incurred in 1980.

Despite constant reassurances of their concern about the deficit, Washington politicians’ actions demonstrate they remain mostly unconcerned about spending today money earned by tomorrow’s taxpayers. After all, borrowing against future generations is a “free action” for politicians, because minors and the unborn can’t vote or donate to campaign funds.

Borrowing against the future is not without significant costs, however, because every dollar paid toward interest on debt makes that dollar unavailable for other concrete uses, including entitlement spending and military defense. The cost of servicing debt is just one part of this massive problem. Dollars taken by the federal government are also used much more inefficiently compared to how they are used in the private sector by individuals and businesses.

Although Congress seems content to merely talk about this problem, state lawmakers have the ability to fix Washington, DC, by forcing Congress to adopt an amendment mandating a balanced budget. This would help restore state legislatures’ role as masters of the federal beast, putting people and the states back in charge of public servants in the national government.

In Article V of the U.S. Constitution, there are two methods for creating new amendments. The first method requires two-thirds of each congressional chamber to approve a joint resolution for a new amendment, which then must be approved by three-fourths (38) of the state legislatures.

The second method is a bottom-up approach, one in which an amendment is approved by the states under Article V of the Constitution. This method requires 34 state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention, which Congress is then required to organize. After an amendment is approved by the convention, three-fourths of the states must ratify it for it to become a part of the Constitution.

Congressional leaders have flirted with balanced budget amendments since 1936, but they have never succeeded, or even come close, to actually passing such a requirement using the normal top-down method. But where the federal government has failed, state lawmakers have taken control in recent years, with many states choosing to pass legislation calling for an Article V convention.

There are several competing model bills and resolutions circulating among state legislatures, but the most popular resolution, sponsored by the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, has been approved by 28 state legislatures, which means reformers are only five states short of calling for a convention to pass a balanced budget amendment.

This isn’t a pipe dream, either. State legislators and other potential convention commissioners are already preparing for “go time.” In September 2017, 72 lawmakers from 19 states attended a national planning convention, hosted by the Arizona legislature, during which rules and procedures were created to prepare for a future national amendment convention. In 2018, state lawmakers should resolve to finish the job, by finally passing a balanced budget amendment so that states can ratify it and compel the national government to do what it consistently has failed to do: act responsibly.

It’s never too late to get on board with the amendment convention movement, and it’s never too early to fight to restore fiscal sanity in Washington, DC.

Jesse Hathaway is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute. Email him at jhathaway@heartland.org.