Guest Opinion: Congress should try discipline, not constitutional amendment
Recently, I received an email from our U.S. representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, seeking my opinion on the proposed balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Now I realize that a balanced budget amendment sounds like a good idea on the surface, and I’m not inherently opposed to it, but I have my reasons why I believe it’s a waste of time.
I believe that amending the U.S. Constitution is a big deal. It should not be entered into lightly, and it should not be resorted to unless all other options have been exhausted. The real concern is that we fall into the trap of starting to use constitutional amendments as a means of legislating. Good people fall into this trap when Congress or the courts manage to circumvent laws. We then think that, if it were in the Constitution, they would have to obey it. But courts and legislatures that lack the character to obey the laws that we already have will be little more inclined to obey a constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, we cheapen the Constitution whenever we resort to using it as an instrument for legislating.
As for the matter at hand, when Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka the debt ceiling increase) on Aug. 1, one of the provisions was a requirement Congress hold a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. So, our congresswoman wanted to know our opinion about this. I quote:
“Next week, the U.S. House will consider a Constitutional amendment to require the federal government to balance its budget – just like families and small businesses all across Eastern Washington have to do, plus 49 out of 50 states …
Should Congress vote to pass a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution?
• Yes. The national debt is a genuine crisis and a balanced budget amendment is a smart way to force the government to start living within its means.
• No. The national debt isn’t a threat and can be dealt with through other means.”
(Editor’s note: The amendment was defeated Friday. The 261 yea votes were short of the required two-thirds majority.)
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds like a fiscally responsible legislator out to balance the budget. But here’s the kicker. Cathy voted for the now-infamous debt ceiling increase that authorized adding up to $2.4 trillion to the then-$14.3 trillion national debt. But it gets better.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 employs amendments to the 1985 Gramm-Rudman- Hollings Act designed to forcibly reduce spending through sequestration should members of Congress fail to do the job themselves. That 1985 law made spending reductions mandatory and required the budget to be balanced by 1991. That law, apparently still on the books, though often amended, contorted and mutilated, obviously did not work.
The point is that I find it downright humorous to think that our representatives and senators, in passing this year’s Budget Control Act, authorized record deficits with one hand and with the other supposedly bound themselves to mandatory spending reductions through the use of a law that they have never in over three decades complied with. Then, in the same bill, they called for a vote on a balanced budget amendment, thus acknowledging right in the text of the bill that they knew good and well that they would not be able to bring themselves to comply with the bill’s spending reduction requirements. Their answer: “Let’s call for a vote on a constitutional amendment, too. Maybe we’ll be able to bring ourselves to comply with that.”
I’m sorry, but this sounds like the drunk who every Friday goes out and spends his whole paycheck at the bar, only to swear on Monday that he’ll never do it again. Friday, he’s back at the bar. So the drunk next puts a padlock on his wallet in the hope that it will stop him from spending his paycheck. But he has since taught himself to pick the lock and can still be found at the bar every Friday emptying his wallet. Now, he is talking about getting a bigger padlock in the hope that will stop him.
A vote on a balanced budget amendment by this Congress sounds to me like a group of legislators who are intoxicated with spending, and know that they can’t stop, but cry out saying, “Someone please stop us before we spend again!”
Robert Peck is the chairman of the Constitution Party of Washington.