Senators Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, introduced a bill this month that would trim federal spending to 20.6 percent of gross domestic product, from the current 25 percent, over a decade. There is also talk of crafting legislation to enact the recommendations of the president’s deficit commission.
All of these proposals lack a crucial element: spending limits enforced through the U.S. Constitution. Without a constitutional amendment, meaningful budget restraint will be put off, and Congress will revert back to the legislative state of nature, where survival means spending, not cutting.
An amendment is necessary because of the latitude the Constitution gives Congress. Article I, Section 5 says “each House may determine the rules of its proceedings.” What this means in practice is that today’s Congress can’t commit a future Congress to spending cuts. Moreover, any internal legislative rule, or even a statute, can be changed or evaded with a large enough congressional majority.
Congress often takes advantage of this prerogative. In 1990, when members realized they would not be able to satisfy the deficit-reduction targets set in the 1985 Gramm-Rudman- Hollings law, they scuttled the targets instead. And for years, legislators have evaded their own rules by calling what most of us would consider routine spending an “emergency.”
“All of this talk about rules,” U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, said in a committee hearing last March, “we make ‘em up as we go along.”
It’s no surprise that Congress makes the rules up as it goes along. Members face the same problem we all do when we commit today to making a hard choice tomorrow. Look no further than unused gym memberships (I’ll eat during the holidays and take off the weight in January) and non-existent retirement accounts (I’ll take a vacation this year and start saving for retirement next year).
Congressmen are, if anything, more susceptible to such failings, because they stand for reelection every two years and it’s easier to get credit for new, targeted spending than for the more amorphous achievement of responsible fiscal stewardship.
The Constitution provides the only lever that can make Congress stick to its promises. As I and others have shown in studies of U.S. state governments, strict balanced budget laws enforced by elected courts are the gold standard for commitment; states with these rules spend less money than states without such restraints.
Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court is appointed rather than elected, but it is still a far better route for enforcement than leaving legislators to their own devices.
Despite this evidence, many reform proposals at the national level explicitly give Congress the authority to fill in the details and enforce the rules, leaving little-to-no role for court oversight. Lawmakers justify these provisions by claiming that judicial oversight would open the door to continuous court challenges of enacted budgets. The real motivation: Congress knows that enforcement matters, and if it controls the process, it can circumvent the rules as political exigencies require.
Of course, true emergencies, including wars or severe economic downturns, will occur periodically. To permit flexibility in such situations, the rules should include a provision enabling Congress to waive the spending limit with an extraordinary supermajority, not the typical two-thirds. The threshold needs to be difficult (but possible) to meet, in keeping with the rare circumstances under which the escape clause should be exercised.
Members of Congress who truly want to engage in responsible budgeting should welcome a constitutional spending cap that permits judicial scrutiny because it provides a credible commitment to fiscal discipline.
To secure support for spending cuts, the tough medicine may need to be postponed until tomorrow. If a constitutional spending limit with real enforcement is enacted, then when tomorrow comes, the reductions will actually have to be made.
Everybody wins except those who prefer that the U.S. continues on an irresponsible budget course.
(David M. Primo is associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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