Politics

The Big Conundrum of Small Government

Only way out is a balanced budget amendment.

By 4.24.14

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In Washington, it is never too early to discuss who will next reside in the White House. But the real question is not who; it's what he will do there. Could even a President Paul, Lee, or Cruz accomplish the dramatic downsizing of government that we need? How would he push a Tea Party agenda, given what I call the Big Conundrum?

The Big Conundrum is that those of us who believe in limited government abhor how much power has been appropriated to the executive branch. It would seem a type of hypocrisy to use those same powers to radically reduce the scope of government. But then, to foreswear the tools that were used to grow government is to adopt a self-defeating strategy. Is there a way to pursue an aggressive agenda as president, while leaving a legacy of reduced executive authority?   

The path we have taken to reach our Big Conundrum is laid out in an important new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America by TAS contributor and George Mason School of Law professor Frank Buckley. Buckley laments that today’s constitutional order is quite different from what the Founders intended. He revisits the debates of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and shows that power was intended to be vested principally in the legislative branch.

Yes, checks on Congress were built into the system, but not with the goal of having three co-equal branches of the federal government. Buckley notes that until the last week of the Constitutional Convention, the working draft of the Constitution required only a majority vote in Congress to remove a sitting president. The provision requiring a super-majority in the Senate was scarcely debated, but amounted to a major increase in presidential power.

Over the last century, we have moved decisively toward what Buckley calls “Crown Government.” Congress has ceded much of its authority to a permanent bureaucracy that rules by regulation. That bureaucracy—now possessing alarming surveillance and policing powers, by the way—is beholden to the president. During the Obama administration, the dangers are multiplying as the president rewrites Obamacare by executive fiat and a compliant press corps gives a pass to the IRS’s attacks on the president’s political enemies. 

Is Crown Government “likely a permanent feature of American government,” as Buckley argues? Or could a liberty-minded president of the United States restore limited government and defang a bureaucracy that will attempt to stymie his every effort?  

I have serious doubts that even a Tea Party-backed president could clean up the mess in Washington by himself (or herself). If the Big Conundrum is to be solved, the American people need to be part of the solution. 

How? The best idea I know of is a new approach to a Balanced Budget Amendment as put forward by Nick Dranias of the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute. He begins by identifying the problem: “Unlimited debt is the fairy dust that makes unlimited government possible.” We can only pretend to live in this fairy tale for so long, because our debt has climbed to epic proportions. The federal government’s explicit debt liabilities now exceed our national GDP, and that doesn’t even include an estimated $100 trillion of unfunded liabilities that are baked into our entitlement programs. It seems a mathematical certainty that a course correction will come in the next twenty years. The question is whether the correction will arrive as a sudden crisis or a challenge we meet with a plan. 

The Goldwater Institute has such a plan. Its “Compact for a Balanced Budget” calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution that gives the states the authority to rein in federal spending. The strategy is to move the amendment forward via a to-date-unused provision in Article V of the Constitution, which would circumvent Congress with a (carefully limited) constitutional convention, organized via a compact among two-thirds of the states. George Will has taken to the pages of the Washington Post to encourage the emerging movement of “Fivers” rallying behind the Article V strategy.  

It’s exciting to see this game-changing idea gain traction. While the Goldwater Institute’s compact calls for leadership from the states and needs no presidential endorsement, presidential aspirants who are serious about reforming Washington will welcome activism that places constitutional limits on federal spending. Perhaps one of them will want to grab the banner at the front of this growing parade. 

After all, there is a hunger at the grassroots to see Republicans go on offense—but also a sense that, absent a larger context, bold calls to abolish federal programs will ring hollow outside a narrow strand of libertarian and Tea Party voters. The Goldwater Institute’s innovative thinking would change the power dynamic in this country and force future conversations about how to prioritize government spending. It could solve the Big Conundrum, and provide a winning platform for a candidate smart enough to run against the status quo in Washington. 

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About the Author

Brad Lips is CEO of the Atlas Network.