Issue in Focus
Nearly everyone in America understands what it means – and what is required – to live within a budget. Regardless of zip code or economic status, most people can spend only as much as they earn. One person’s paycheck may be twice the size as his neighbor’s, but neither may continually spend beyond their means.
The one glaring exception to this rule is the United States Congress.
The problem isn’t simply that Congress spends more money than it brings in through taxes and other sources of revenue. The problem is that Congress has consistently proven itself to be incapable of exercising fiscal discipline and irresistibly attracted to perpetual deficit spending.
Of course, the Constitution gives Congress the power “[t]o borrow money on the credit of the United States,” in Article I, Section 8. But our staggering levels of debt prove Congress is unable to exercise this power responsibly.
The U.S. national debt clock website helps put the federal government’s spending crisis into perspective. It shows that our national debt isn’t just astronomically large – it’s also constantly increasing, at a rate of thousands of dollars every second!
Currently, the total national debt hovers just above $19 trillion, which means that each American’s per capita share equals nearly $60,000, and a family of five can be said to own a portion of the national debt valued at more than a quarter million dollars.
Saddling future generations with a debt burden of this size is not just fiscally irresponsible – it’s immoral. And yet every recent attempt at spending restraint in Congress has failed. Budget cuts have been repeatedly postponed. Spending caps have been ignored or sidestepped with accounting gimmicks. The so-called debt limit has been raised routinely as a matter of course.
The problem with each of these failed attempts to impose fiscal discipline on Congress is that they are short-term. What we need are permanent structural limits on the government’s power to borrow and spend. Specifically, what we need is a constitutional amendment that requires Congress to balance its budget each year, subject only to limited and difficult-to-invoke exceptions.
A Balanced Budget Amendment was the subject of a hearing this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee entitled, “Preventing America's Looming Fiscal Crisis: The Need for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.” As the hearing’s witnesses discussed, adopting a balanced budget amendment would be a difficult, time-consuming endeavor. But it may be the only step still available to fix the underlying problem and permanently end Congress’s addiction to deficit spending.