But what action? Respectable proposals have been advanced to prevent increases in taxes and to constitutionally require a balanced budget. But neither of these approaches would take direct aim at our true core problem: spending. Meanwhile, limiting taxes would invite higher deficits, and limiting deficits would invite higher taxes. Limiting spending, however, would lead to lower spending, taxes, and deficits. It’s no fun to tax if you can’t spend your bounty -- and without overspending, you can’t rack up debt.
Moreover, we shouldn’t be afraid to travel the constitutional road. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, the Constitution isn’t “like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” Congress’s powers were established by the Constitution, and it is perfectly proper that they be limited by it.
If we are serious about limiting government spending over the long haul, we need a carefully crafted constitutional amendment -- one that limits Congress while also allowing it the requisite flexibility to deal with unforeseeable circumstances. We need a Limited Government Amendment, to read as follows:
Section 1: The annual rate of growth in total federal spending shall not exceed the rate of inflation, plus two percentage points, and neither budgeted nor actual spending shall exceed this limit, apart from the exceptions listed below. If no budget is passed, then the most recently passed budget, excluding any exceptions granted in Section 2, shall apply.
Section 2: Defense spending shall not be limited during a time of formally declared war, and further exceptions to the spending limits specified in Section 1 may be granted by the legislatures in three-quarters of the several states, upon the application of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, as they deem necessary; but any such exceptions shall not be included in determining spending limits for subsequent years.
Section 3: The spending limit for the first fiscal year following the cessation of hostilities in a declared war shall be the limit that was established for the fiscal year preceding the declaration of war, excluding any exceptions granted in that year, and adjusted for compounded inflation through all fiscal years completed in the interim.
Section 4: The rate of inflation used in determining spending limits shall be the rate from the most recently completed fiscal year prior to the passage of a given year’s budget, and the method of measuring inflation shall not be altered substantially from long-established norms. Spending that is not defense spending shall not be characterized as such; each exception granted by the states shall apply only to one fiscal year if not granted anew; and every citizen of the United States shall have standing to sue in federal court to enforce the language of this amendment.
Such an amendment would limit the inflation-adjusted annual growth in federal spending to no more than two percent, except during congressionally declared wars or if a supermajority of states were to approve a one-year exception.
Some will say we don’t need such an amendment; that somehow our fiscal house will get itself in order; that Congress will limit itself going forward. Our Founders knew, however, that to maintain our Constitution, we would have to tend to it -- which is why they included an amendment provision. And the simple truth is this: federal spending is out of control, and it needs to be limited.
Over the next few decades, this amendment would save well over one hundred trillion dollars in relation to current trajectories of spending. These savings would enable us to pay off our current national debt many times over. But at the same time, the savings would not result from imposing draconian limits. On the contrary, this amendment would limit the growth in government spending to levels that we stayed within, on average, during the course of both the Clinton and the first Bush administrations -- hardly periods of great austerity and sacrifice.
Through the passage of a Limited Government Amendment, we can finally control our federal government’s rampant spending in a way that no law, no pledge, no promise, can do.
With spending comes regulation; with spending comes taxation; with spending comes the consolidation of power. But by controlling spending, we can reestablish the principle of limited government on our shores.
Jeffrey H. Anderson, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.