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An Amendment Whose Time Has Never Come

by David E. Kyvig on Feb 20, 1997

David E. Kyvig

Why has the balanced budget amendment been before Congress for sixty-one years without gaining approval?  Never in all that time have the elected representatives of the day agreed, by constitutionally sufficient majorities, to this fundamental alteration of the powers of the federal government. Could it be that an adequate portion of Congress has seen and understood the ample evidence of the potentially disastrous consequences of this amendment? Is it possible that while many legislators pandered to popular enthusiasm for a simplistic solution to fiscal complexities, a responsible minority treated the Constitution with the respect it deserves? Is it conceivable that the constitutional amending system has worked as the Framers intended? Is it even possible that some senators and representatives have examined the relevant history to form wise decisions?

The answer to all of these questions is “yes,” raising hope that today’s legislators will reason historically to make another sound constitutional judgment. A clear understanding of the past does not absolve these officials from the obligation to make their own decisions, but historical awareness can assist them to repeat the sensible choices of six decades.

The federal government did not even develop a unified annual budget until the 1920s. A belief in some quarters that the budget should be constitutionally limited soon followed. In 1936 the first budget-restraining amendment was offered as an anti-New Deal measure. At a time when national obligations in domestic and international affairs were growing rapidly and substantially, this initial effort to restrict federal fiscal power gained little support.  Instead, in meeting the challenges of the Depression and World War II, the federal budget grew twenty-fold under conditions that made prompt equivalent revenue collection, hence budget balancing, virtually impossible. On the eve of those momentous events, such budget increases and  imbalances could hardly have been imagined. Looking back, however, while nearly every American questioned one expenditure or another, few argued against giving the government the power to spend what it did.

After World War II, constitutional amendment proposals requiring a balanced budget emerged again. But even the Eisenhower administration, hardly a bastion of tax-and-spend enthusiasm, opposed such relatively inflexible measures.  Once again, balanced budget requirements were defeated.

The Vietnam war again prompted consideration of federal budget limitation. Imbalances rose precipitously as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon avoided giving opponents of the war the political opportunity that a tax increase request would provide. Further political popularity seeking by Ronald Reagan and George Bush left the budget much further in deficit.

A variety of groups with dissimilar political objectives showed interest in constitutionally required, annually balanced budgets. A few social liberals hoped to curtail military expenditures. Libertarians sought to reduce government’s resources and role in American life. Many traditional conservatives simply wanted government to “pay as we go.” These groups all regarded the federal budget as akin to the family checkbook where failure to limit household spending to income courted disaster. This analogy ignored the reality that large-scale, multi-year borrowing, especially auto loans and home mortgages, was essential to sound family economies.

Since 1975 Senate hearings on the subject, debate over a balanced budget requirement has been a staple of American political discourse. State legislative petitions for a constitutional convention in the late 1970s, Senate passage of an amendment resolution in 1982, and similar House action in 1995 made it appear likely on more than one occasion that a balanced budget amendment was imminent. Yet each time, constitutionally sufficient opposition blocked its adoption.

The repeated defeats of balanced budget amendments should come as no surprise. The Framers deliberately made amendment difficult. They believed that the rules governing the obligations and conduct of government should be overwhelmingly agreed upon before taking effect. They insisted that a change in the Constitution required greater consensus than any other action: approval by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. They knew the rules for making the laws would ultimately determine the fate of their government.

As economic circumstances have changed, the justifications offered for a balanced budget amendment have also shifted. Opposition, however, has been remarkably consistent, rooted in a sense that, once imposed, constitutional requirements place very strict obligations upon the federal government. Predicting even short term, much less long term government financial responsibilities is very difficult. A balanced budget amendment would cripple subsequent generations’ ability to make democratic choices based on their current circumstances. Once placed in the Constitution, balanced budget requirements would be impossible for even a normal legislative majority to escape, however inappropriate or even harmful they might seem at the moment. Responsible historically-sensitive legislators have for more than a half-century decided that a balanced budget amendment is a bad bargain. They should do so again.

David E. Kyvig, Distinguished Research Professor at Northern Illinois University, is author of "The Age of Impeachment: American Constitutional Culture since 1960" (2008).