There is a problem brewing in the House of Representatives of which most conservatives in and outside Congress are largely unaware. It has to do with H.J. Res. 1 - the balanced budget amendment - soon to be voted on per the debt-ceiling “deal” struck by Congress and the president. While H.J. Res. 1 is a solid first effort - and we have urged support for it as a symbolic vote - it is possibly fatally flawed and should be revised.
After years of indifference to constitutional fiscal discipline, Congress is once again stirring. In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan, convened a federal amendment drafting committee led by Milton Friedman, Jim Buchanan, Bill Niskanen, Walter Williams and many others, and fashioned Senate Joint Resolution 58, a tax limitation-balanced budget amendment, which garnered 67 votes in the Senate under the able leadership of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. After a successful discharge petition forced a House vote, the amendment failed to achieve the two-thirds vote necessary in a Tip O’Neill-Jim Wright-controlled House. In 1996, Newt Gingrich and company came within one vote of passing a fiscal amendment in the House.
Currently, H.J. Res. 1 is designed as a classic balanced budget amendment in which outlays can be as great as, but no more than, receipts for that year. However, it requires an estimate of receipts, which is notoriously faulty, and it does not necessarily produce surpluses with which to pay down our massive debt. Furthermore, it contains a second limit on outlays - “not more than 18 percent of the economic output of the United States” - without defining such output or resolving the inevitable conflict between the outlay calculations in the two provisions.
This could be fixed by restructuring the amendment as a spending or outlay limit based on prior year receipts or outlays (known numbers), adjusted only for inflation and population changes. This will produce surpluses in most years with which to pay down debts and will reduce government spending as a share of gross domestic product over time, right-sizing government and increasing the rate of economic growth for the benefit of all citizens, especially those least able to compete.
Section 4 of H.J. Res. 1 might best be described as a supreme example of the law of unintended consequences. This section imposes on the president a constitutional responsibility to present a balanced budget. Surely, the drafters were saying to themselves “We’ll fix that guy in the White House. Now he will have to fess up and either propose specific tax increases or specific spending cuts. He won’t be able to duck reality any longer.” The only problem is that this section is at odds with our Constitution in that it gives the president a constitutional power over fiscal matters never intended by the Founders.
For much of our history, the president did not propose a budget. In the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which established the Bureau of the Budget, now the Office of Management and Budget and the General Accounting Office, the president was statutorily authorized to propose a budget. Presidents have always shaped the budget and spending using their negotiating opportunities and veto pen. Wearing their chief administrator hat, earlier presidents sought to save money from the amounts appropriated by Congress, getting things done for less, impounding funds they did not think essential to spend. Congress’ ceiling on an appropriation was not also the spending floor for the president, as it is now.
Section 4 appears to give the president co-equal power with Congress not only to present a budget but to shape it, in conflict with congressional budget authority. At a minimum, it is likely to create a conflict over the amount of allowed annual spending. The president surely will be guided by his own Office of Management and Budget, whose budget and receipts calculations will undoubtedly differ from the Congressional Budget Office’s numbers that will direct Congress. We should not start the budget process each year with this kind of conflict.
It would be better to restore the historic role of the president to impound and otherwise reduce expenditures by repealing and revising appropriate portions of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 so a fiscally conservative president is a revitalized partner in cutting the size of government.
Section 5 requires a supermajority vote for “a bill to increase revenues.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with making tax increases more difficult, this language is troublesome because it requires some government bureaucrat or bureaucracy to make a calculation or estimate of the effect of tax law changes on revenues. Proponents of a bill to increase cash flow to the government will argue that their tax law changes are “revenue neutral” and will likely persuade the Joint Committee on Taxation or Congressional Budget Office to back them up. Once again, estimators would be in control.
If we ever expect to convert our income-based tax system to a consumption tax, better not to require a two-thirds vote as liberals will use such a supermajority voting rule to stymie tax system reform.
There are other issues, as well, with debt limit and national emergency supermajority votes and definitions. While this balanced budget amendment - H.J. Res. 1 - has deserved a “yes” vote as a demonstration of commitment to constitutional fiscal discipline, it can and must be revised before the showdown vote in the House this fall.
Lewis K. Uhler is president of the National Tax Limitation Committee.