Oppose the Debt Limit Until We Pass the Hatch-Lee BBA

May 10, 2011

As the debate over the nation’s debt ceiling heats up, many are wondering not only whether Congress will support an increase, but also what measures will the opponents of an increase demand in return for lifting the limit.  I stand firmly behind a proposal that, in return for allowing a vote on the debt ceiling, will begin to fundamentally change the way Washington spends money. 

In a letter distributed last week, I asked my Republican colleagues in the Senate to join me in opposing any increase in the debt ceiling unless or until both houses of Congress have passed the Hatch-Lee Balanced Budget Amendment.  The amendment would cap future spending at 18% of GDP and require a supermajority in both houses to run an annual deficit for a specific purpose, raise the debt ceiling, and increase taxes. 

To borrow from Churchill, to get spending under control, a balanced budget amendment is the worst solution except all the others that have been tried.  And Congress has tried several. 

Previous Congresses have attempted to restrict spending through statutory restrictions such as the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, more commonly known as Gramm-Rudman, and the Budget Enforcement Act.  Both failed to control spending long-term because of each of the laws’ built-in limitations and the ease with which subsequent Congresses were able to reform, repeal, dismantle and ultimately ignore the restrictions. 

The debt ceiling itself is some measure of a spending restraint, but, again, because it only requires a majority vote to increase the cap, lifting the limit has been little more than a formality from year to year. 

The worst solution of all has been to do nothing and simply trust that the President and Congress will produce fiscally responsible budgets and spending bills.  From unenforced debt limits, to enacting new entitlements, to “emergency” spending bills loaded with pork, Washington has proven that it cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the short-term to ensure the country’s long-term prosperity. It would be gross fiscal negligence not to impose some structural, binding, and permanent spending restraint on Congress at a time when our national debt threatens to collapse our economy.

Back to Churchill, several proposals have been floated as possible bargains for increasing the debt limit.  Unquestionably the “best worst” solution, indeed the only one that has a real chance of permanently changing the way Washington spends money, is the Hatch-Lee Balanced Budget Amendment.  It is the very nature of a constitutional amendment that makes the proposal a highly effective limitation on Congress’s insatiable appetite to spend.  Unlike other statutory reforms that have failed because they needed only a simple majority to dismantle, an amendment to the Constitution would require overwhelming support from Congress and the American people to return to the country to the status quo. 

I will continue to encourage my colleagues to oppose an increase in the debt limit unless and until we pass the Hatch-Lee Balanced Budget Amendment.  For anyone serious about preserving the long-term prosperity of our country, it should be an easy stand to take.