When President Obama delivered his 2010 State of the Union speech back in January, he underscored the need for government to live within its means. “Like any cash-strapped family,” he said, “[the federal government] will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.”
His appeal that night sought to reassure an increasingly skeptical public that the federal government’s spending addiction could be curbed. Words are helpful, but action makes the difference. And in the weeks since his address, strong fiscal leadership has been notably absent in our nation’s capital.
Just days after that speech, the President unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, which totals $3.8 trillion and includes $1.3 trillion in deficit spending. If adopted, the President’s budget would add a staggering $9.76 trillion to the national debt over the next decade and increase the debt’s size to 90 percent of the economy by 2020, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
Not long after that, the President signed legislation, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and narrowly in the House, to increase the nation’s debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion. The new limit effectively clears the way for officials to add another $1.9 trillion to the national debt which broke the $12.5 trillion mark earlier this month.
Now, with the president’s vision of health care reform a reality, the federal government is on target to spend another $940 billion over the next 10 years, according to a preliminary analysis from the CBO. Add to that a $208 billion “doc fix” expected sometime later this year and it is easy to get the sense that America’s fiscal house is on fire.
With words alone having failed to stem the tide of red ink, Americans are left to wonder what, if anything, can be done to rein in the growth of federal spending before catastrophe strikes. One proposal – the Spending Limit Amendment – claims to have the answer.
Earlier this month, Congressmen Jeb Hensarling (TX), Mike Pence (IN), and John Campbell (CA) introduced a constitutional amendment which, if passed, would limit federal spending to no more than one-fifth of the nation’s economy – the post-World War II average. The proposed cap could only be lifted during a time of war or by a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress.
Though this isn’t the first time an amendment of this type has been put forward, this go-round carries with it a little bit more sense of urgency given the current fiscal outlook. Not only is the nation’s debt problem rapidly accelerating, but America’s ability to finance its enormous spending appetite is coming under increasing pressure.
Recently, the United States’ AAA bond rating was called into question by Moody’s after the credit agency warned of “debt reversibility” issues; though, to be fair, the US did not face any immediate threats. Nonetheless, these kinds of warnings should not be taken lightly and signal the need for some type of control mechanism that cannot be flippantly discarded by a simple majority of Congress.
To be clear though, a spending limit alone – even a constitutional one – won’t solve America’s long-term budget issues. Lawmakers need to re-examine the role of government and eliminate those agencies and federal government functions that would be better left to the private sector or not done at all. American taxpayers and “cash-strapped” families soon won’t be able to afford government to do otherwise.
James Quintero is a fiscal policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.