Note: A version of this article first appeared at National Review
In recent days, both Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru (the senior editors of National Review) have come out against the idea of a balanced-budget amendment with spending limitations (Rich here, Ramesh here). In particular, they both dislike the idea of requiring Congress to move on the proposed resolution (S. J. Res. 10, which would then go to the states for ratification) as a condition of raising the debt limit – an idea that has already been endorsed by dozens of Republican members of Congress. They should reconsider their position.
The most basic reason why we have a debt-limit crisis now is that we have allowed the federal government to grow so far beyond its enumerated powers that we are up against artificial debt limits as virtually a last defense against its relentless growth. This is not a fiscal crisis – it is an attempt to halt the very accumulation of federal power that the Federalists promised us would never happen. It’s a constitutional crisis, and it cannot be fixed merely by holding the line on taxes and securing deep spending cuts in the short term.
What has long been clear to many constitutional scholars is now intuitively obvious to Americans of all stripes: The relentless expansion of federal power is destroying self-government at every level of society besides the national one – and with it, the self-reliance and independence that made this country great. It is difficult any longer to see what stands between us and a statist tyranny of the majority. Supporters of the balanced-budget amendment are trying to erect a shield against unrestrained federal power. Conservative skeptics should to do more than say, “Well, that won’t work.”
Ramesh points out that state governments rely so much on federal funds that they would never vote to limit federal spending. But here’s the thing: Those federal funds are conditional, and the conditions are paralyzing state governments’ ability to respond to their citizens’ desires and ideas. They face immediate political danger because they are increasingly unable to provide real representation for those they represent. Conditional federal funds have become a hated fixture of state-budget battles. Indeed, even liberal justices of the Supreme Court have seen conditional federal grants as perhaps the greatest threat to federalism. Washington gets all its money from the states, and then returns it to them only on condition that they adopt federal preferences on a whole range of state policy issues. From the point of view of state legislators, this is not a source of support, it’s a straight-jacket. It’s their money to start with, and most of them would far rather spend it themselves on home-grown ideas. Even among those states that shamefully use the federal machinery to go rent-seeking among their more productive sisters, many state governments would vote to be rid of federal grants altogether if they could keep the tax revenue that finances them.
As Arthur Brooks writes in an instant classic on what’s really at stake in the debt-ceiling talks, “We need tectonic changes, not minor fiddling.” If not a constitutional amendment, then what? Arthur Brooks’s column is a call to action – “hard work for at least a decade.” But what exactly is our objective, if not to revive constitutional protections against the vast accumulation of central government power that the Framers equated with tyranny, and which Brooks terms “statism” and “the welfare state”? Brooks supports Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan – but it would require supreme political will to carry that plan through, and as soon as we let our guard down, we’d be right back where we are now. That’s because tectonic changes over the past 70 years have taken us away from a Constitution of limited powers and toward a dynamic of unlimited federal expansion.
Rich argues that we shouldn’t adopt amendments that are bound to be suspended by one exception after another, because ignoring the Constitution inevitably weakens it. I completely agree, but we are way past that point already. Federal power has exploded far beyond any concept of limited government that you can find in the text of the Constitution. We’re talking about restoring some semblance of a federal Constitution of limited powers, not preserving an interpretation of it that allows temporary majorities in Congress and the Supreme Court to wreak whatever havoc they please in every corner of our society.
Conservatives need to achieve a consensus on a way to revive constitutional limitations and protect against the manipulation of the federal machinery by those bent on confiscations of property as the means to achieve “social justice.” If you don’t like the constitutional amendment proposed by 47 Republican senators and all the conservatives in the House of Representatives, then let’s please move right along to the consideration of an alternative.