A Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment May Be Our Only Hope.
Over the last few decades, no force on earth has been able to halt the explosive growth of US federal debt.
At the conclusion of WWII, fiscal conservatives were aghast that our national debt had ballooned to $259 billion. By the end of the Vietnam war it stood at $533 billion and, despite urgent warnings, was over $5,674 billion by the end of the century. Today it stands at $30,000 billion ($30 trillion) after the Biden administration’s horrific spending spree conducted under the pretext of limiting the fallout from Covid.
The reason is pretty simple. Spending other peoples’ money is politically popular. Taxes are not and budget-cutting is risky.
We have developed a political culture in which the reelection of incumbents is the highest of all priorities. It is considered perfectly acceptable to just kick the can down the road and let future generations sort out the consequences of our selfishness.
So, for example, when Bush 43 attempted to propose desperately needed reforms for Medicare and Medicare, he was mercilessly demagogued for “pushing granny over the cliff”. His Republican allies deserted him and the effort collapsed. Nobody has tried any such thing since, although debt reduction is mathematically impossible without entitlement reform.
It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going. Interest rates are rising, while serious geopolitical threats are forming. We’re backing ourselves into a position of severe internal and external weakness at just the wrong time.
Yet the political class remains unmoved. Some pay lip service to fiscal discipline, but the spending goes on unabated. Student loans, accommodations for illegal immigrants, and missiles for Ukraine on the condition that no Russians will be harmed by their use are all embraced as if unlimited funds are available.
Fortunately, our forefathers anticipated that the government they created would attempt to exceed its limited constitutional powers. They gave the states a powerful tool to defend themselves – the right to amend the constitution on their own.
Article V of the constitution mandates that Congress “shall” call a constitutional convention when requested to do so by 2/3 of the states and that any amendments proposed when ratified by 3/4 of the states become “Part of this Constitution”.
The founders would be disappointed to know that the states have never exercised this extraordinary privilege. Thomas Jefferson, knowing how these things go, thought a convention of the states would be needed every generation or so to reign in federal government encroachments.
Instead, the states have stood meekly by as the federal government has far surpassed them in power and prestige to the point where calling a convention of the states is seen as an act of rebellion against authority.
But nothing else has worked to restrain federal spending. Millions of dollars have been spent to elect self-described fiscal conservatives, yet it’s beyond obvious that Congress will never reform itself.
Of course, the convention-of-the-states idea has its enemies. Opposition from the spenders on the left is understandable because they don’t want to end their gravy train. But it is the alliance between the left and conservative stalwarts like the Eagle Forum and John Birch Society which have effectively stalled progress.
Their arguments are fear-inspired. Their principle objection is the perceived threat of a “runaway convention“, the fear that in a constitutional convention, there would be nothing to stop special interest groups from pushing their agendas from banning abortion to banning guns.
Hogwash. Even if the state legislatures fail to limit the authority of Convention delegates, 38 states must ratify any proposed amendments. That historically has been very strong protection.
Right-wing opposition seems mostly concerned that the convention could inflict lasting damage to the sanctity of our Constitution. The opposite is the truth.
Nothing could honor and strengthen the constitution more than using its own provisions to enable us to address our most urgent modern threat. The other option is the Left’s practice of declaring a “living“ constitution that says whatever judges say it does.
It’s time for us to flex our democratic muscles and fulfill our destiny as free, optimistic, and proud Americans. Our republic may be in the balance.
Thomas C. Patterson, MD is a retired Emergency Medicine physician, Arizona state Senator and Arizona Senate Majority Leader in the ’90s. He is a former Chairman, Goldwater Institute.
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