Thomas Jefferson favored amending the Constitution by “taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.” He also favored a requirement that taxes would have to be sufficient for each generation to pay its own debts. Managing debt has always been a fundamental problem of American democracy.
In the early 1990s there was a widespread movement to amend the constitution through a “convention of the states” to require that in balancing the budget, the federal government could not do so by passing on “unfunded mandates” to the states. Now, the president’s proposal to rebuild our infrastructure would do exactly that.
Constitutional balanced budget proposals are a continual part of our history. (Even then-Sen. Joe Biden voted for one in 1995.) We have avoided them, historically limiting the role of government by a narrower interpretation of the Constitution, as well as by restraining spending.
Such restraints no longer exist in either political party. Debt is now a greater percentage of our economy than at any time since World War II. There is no emergency to spend now, there is just no political will to restructure popular social programs that have become a part of our culture, to pull back from endless undeclared wars, or to raise the taxes of those who have the ability to pay, in order to make good on our bills in our own time. Along with paying for our long neglect of the nation’s infrastructure, we “boomers” will leave our kids and grandkids with many trillions in smothering debt. It is unquestionably “generational theft,” the exact opposite of the wonderful inheritance that was passed on to us.
Recent polls show that the debt is not a large concern to most people. While I feel I’m on a different planet from my fellow citizens on many issues these days, the increasingly crushing debt has long been a great concern to me. Why not to other people? Searching for solace, I contacted Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the longtime debt watchdog organization, The Concord Coalition, and the leading expert on debt that I know.
No solace there. Bob Bixby is as troubled as I am. He commented that the “debt outlook is now worse than its ever been,” and that “our decision makers seem blindly fixated on keeping the offices open of a government that’s going broke.”
He remains skeptical of a balanced budget amendment. (Wyoming legislators have approved such a proposal; Montana’s have voted it down.) Bixby argues that once in the Constitution, the courts would have to decide questions of solvency, thus transferring the power of the purse to unelected judges, and giving the death knell of our representative democracy.
To Bixby it boils down to the people and our elected leaders “making fiscal responsibility a priority.” Certainly that’s not the case, beginning at the top. Candidate Donald Trump repeatedly promised a balanced budget within eight years. In only his first year, President Trump has inscribed his bold signature on measures that will actually increase our debt by $7 to $10 trillion.
President Eisenhower famously said a “bankrupt nation is a defenseless nation.” He signed balanced budgets. It’s hard to imagine Ike approving the recently passed budget busting tax cuts, or the defense heavy spending bill. Boy do we need Ike’s leadership, or Jefferson’s, again now.
Trouble is, self-government is of, by, and for the people and leaders they choose in their own time. Eisenhower Republicans are as extinct as Jeffersonian Democrats. Our fate is now, as it has always been, in the hands of the leaders we have chosen.
Bob Brown is a former Republican secretary of state and state senate president.
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