Will a balanced budget amendment advance the cause of limited government and constrain spending? This question was explored during a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) yesterday moderated by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (AFT). The short answer is yes, so long as that amendment is crafted in the right way with a proviso that requires a supermajority for raising taxes. That seemed to be consensus in the ballroom and the panelist made a strong case. This conservative has mixed feelings. Go back to the 1990s, and we did achieve a balanced budget by way of robust economic growth and much lower federal spending. This was done without changing the U.S. Constitution. As conservatives, shouldn’t we prioritize the repeal of damaging amendments instead of adding new ones? (I’d start with the 17th Amendment, but there are others.)
Still, the panelists made a strong case.
Lou Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, threw some sobering stats. If the Balanced Budget Amendment President Reagan supported in the early 1980s had prevailed over then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s recalcitrant Democratic majority, the nation would have saved $10 trillion in spending in the intervening years, and the debt held by the public now at $12.6 trillion would be less than $1 trillion. So it’s getting harder for me to resist the amendment.
Nick Dranias, a legal scholar with the Goldwater Institute, directly addressed the concerns I have over constitutional purity. Under Article 5 of the Constitution, once two-thirds of the states — 34 out of 50 — agree on an amendment, Congress must set a time and place for delegates of all 50 states to hold a convention. Three-quarters of the states — meaning 38 of them — must then approve the result. The founding fathers specifically put this provision in as a check against an oversized federal government.
Does this open the way to a “runaway convention”? That is one conservative concern I’ve heard. The answer I think is that the runaway convention is already in motion on Capitol Hill. We are where we are.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, correctly noted that conservatives have scored important victories on the tax front. Over 90 percent of Republicans in the House and Senate have signed his pledge to refrain from raising taxes. We do have a handful of squishes. "Republicans who raise taxes are like rat heads in a coke bottle, they damage the brand for everyone." Still, the GOP at large maintains a strong anti-tax streak.
But regardless of how much new revenue the political class takes in, it can always spend more. Outside pressure is needed to force change; that’s why I’m warming to the idea of a Balanced Budget Amendment.