Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Skip the Balanced Budget Amendment

James Skillen


March 3, 1997

Congress, once again, is about to vote on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. First put forward by conservative Republicans after they took control of Congress in 1994, the amendment passed the House of Representatives but lost in the Senate by one vote.

The proposed amendment is the same this time around. If passed by both houses of Congress and approved by three quarters of the state legislatures, it would require a balanced budget by 2002. After 2002, any exceptions would have to be approved by a three-fifths majority of both houses of Congress.

The intention behind the amendment is admirable. Starting in the Reagan years, the federal government has added trillions of dollars to the national debt with continuous unbalanced budgets. If the states can balance their budgets, why can't the federal government do so? Evidently Congress and the president cannot control themselves, so an external mechanism is needed.

The proposed amendment, however, is not the right one to address the problem of perpetual deficit spending.

The responsibility of elected representatives is to govern. Congress and the president should be deciding each year how to balance revenues and expenditures. The fact that they have been willing to spend more money than government takes in reveals much about the weakness of our political parties and of the electoral promises candidates make. It also says much about the strength of lobbies and interest groups. A balanced-budget amendment will change none of this. The most powerful interest groups will still exercise disproportionate influence. The amendment will not keep the AARP, for example, from opposing cuts in Social Security, even if that would be a more just way to balance the budget than to cut other items.

The proponents of the balanced-budget amendment sound a lot like the advocates of term limits. Their proposed solution leaves untouched the source of the problem and instead fixes on an external mechanism to halt the negative consequences. But the way to oust entrenched legislators overdue for retirement is not to trim away the rights of voters and to force out the best lawmakers along with the worst ones. Instead, we need to strengthen the capability of voters to vote wisely and to hold their representatives accountable.

Similarly, the solution to unbalanced budgets should be sought in greater party discipline and electoral accountability that motivates members of Congress and the president to own up to their electoral promises and make sound decisions about programs and taxes. Weakening their deliberative responsibility is a serious mistake.

Moreover, the federal government is responsible for more than balancing the budget. There will be times when an unbalanced budget is fully justified. A deep recession with high unemployment, for example, may require Congress and the president to work with an unbalanced budget. That should not be an excuse, however, for a spending spree. The budget discipline they need should grow from the steady practice of self-discipline year after year, not from an arbitrary external requirement.

Think of it this way: how will the voters know if Congress is ever justified in overriding a balanced-budget requirement by a three-fifths majority, if we cannot be sure now that their simple majority decisions about taxing and spending are in line?

Reject this amendment, members of Congress. Reach deeper to the source of the problem.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”