Congress is its own "walking waiver"

Senator Lee spoke with Fox News’ Lou Dobbs about the importance of implementing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, rather than just enacting statutory spending caps:

May 17, 2011

Dobbs: Our next guest has vigorously opposed any efforts to raise the debt ceiling unless a balanced budget amendment is passed… Senator, we are here, the “catastrophe” that Timothy Geithner predicted, the rhetoric that flowed from this administration for weeks and months has now been proved to be at best hyperbolic and fear mongering. What is the situation, as you see is?

Lee: The lights are still on, we have not disappeared into thin air. That is not to say we don't face a daunting challenge in the next few months as we figure out what to do about this, but it underscores the point which is to say you can simply present this to the Congress as a must-have. There are other alternatives including, and especially, agreement that we need a balanced budget amendment in place before we raise the debt limit again. We have to put a structural permanent change in place to restrict the way Washington spends money before we can allow Washington to take on a new credit card.

Dobbs: Let's assume everybody was so rational to pass your legislation, what would be the effect, when would a balanced budget be required, how much time would you all have? … Why in the world do you think a balanced budget amendment would not simply be ignored?

Lee: First of all when something becomes part of the Constitution, Congress can't ignore it. There would be enormous political consequences and legal consequences as well if it tried to. To answer the first part of your question, this particular proposal backed by all 47 Republicans in the United States Senate contains a five year delayed implementation clause. It would take effect 5 years after being ratified by the states. That would give Congress enough time to reach the comfortable glide path toward balancing its budget.

Dobbs: Why wouldn't [Congress] understand it is time to bring to bear the judgment, their wisdom and prudence and sense of responsibility instead of being forced by constitutional amendment, it would seem to me that would be entirely practical without the benefit of a balanced budget amendment?

Lee: This is an argument raised frequently. I am sympathetic to it in many respects. But at the end of the day we have to remember every time in the past when Congress has adopted statutory spending limits, those remain intact and respected in the short-term. In the long term, within five years, Congress starts to ignore them. Congress will eventually repeal its way out.

Dobbs: How long does it take?

Lee: Usually within five years Congress weasels its way out [of statutory spending reforms].

Dobbs: …This is a Congress, a Senate and a White House that frankly is overwhelmed with its burden of being factual and straightforward when it comes to fiscal policy, is it?

Lee: That is right… The point is, if all we can get are statutory spending caps - which we do need, they are necessary, I applaud them, I encourage them - but if that is all we have, that is not enough because Congress controls the law. It can waive its way out of the law. In the past, Congress has been its own walking, living, breathing waiver.  We have to put into the text of the Constitution so that Congress can’t exempt its way out of it when times get tough.