How to Control Congress

With deficits today soaring, it might be time to look at a Constitutional amendment to rein in government spending. However, this will prove to be an uphill battle.

Let's assume that each of our 535 congressmen cares about the destructive impact of deficits and debt on the future of our country. Regardless of party, congressmen face enormous lobbying pressures and awards to spend more and little or no pressure and awards to spend less. The nation's founders would be horrified by today's congressional spending that consumes 25 percent of our GDP.

Contrast that to the years 1787 to the 1920s when federal government spending never exceeded 4 percent of our GDP except in wartime. Today, federal, state and local government consumes 43 percent of what Americans produce each year. The Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation computes that the average taxpayer is forced to work from Jan. 1 to mid-April to pay federal, state and local taxes. If he were taxed enough to pay the $1.5 trillion federal deficit, he'd be forced to work until mid-May.
Tax revenue is not the problem. The federal government has collected just about 20 percent of the nation's GDP almost every year since 1960. Federal spending has exceeded revenue for most of that period and has taken an unprecedented leap since 2008 to produce today's massive deficit. Since federal spending is the problem, that's where our focus should be.
Cutting spending is politically challenging. Every spending constituency sees its handout as vital, whether it's Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid recipients or farmers, poor people, educators or the military. It's easy for congressmen to say yes to these spending constituencies because whether it's Democrats or Republicans in control, they face no hard and fast bottom line.
The bottom line that Americans need is a constitutional amendment limiting congressional spending to some fraction, say 20 percent, of the GDP. That limit could be exceeded only if the president declared a state of emergency along with a two-thirds vote of approval in both houses of Congress. Each year of a declared state of emergency would require another two-thirds vote in each house.
During the early '80s, I was a member of the National Tax Limitation Committee's distinguished blue-ribbon drafting committee that included notables such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Paul McCracken, Bill Niskanen, Craig Stubblebine, Robert Bork, Aaron Wildavsky, Robert Nisbet, Robert Carleson and others. We drafted a Balanced Budget/Spending Limitation amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Senate passed that amendment on Aug. 4, 1982, by a vote of 69 to 31, two more than the two-thirds vote required for approval of a constitutional amendment. The vote was bipartisan: 47 Republicans, 21 Democrats and 1 Independent voted for the amendment.
It was a different story in the House of Representatives. Its leadership, under Tip O'Neill tried to prevent a vote on the amendment; however, a discharge petition forced a vote on it. While the amendment was approved by a majority (236 to 187), it did not meet the two-thirds required by Article V of the Constitution. The vote was again bipartisan: 167 Republicans, 69 Democrats. The amendment can be found in Milton and Rose Friedman's "Tyranny of the Status Quo."
The benefit of a balanced budget/spending limitation amendment is that it would give Congress a bottom line just as we in the private sector have a bottom line. Congress would be forced to play one spending constituency off against another, rather than, as it does today, satisfy most spending constituents and pass the buck to the rest of us and future generations in the forms of federal deficits and debt.
The 1980s discussions settled on giving Congress a spending limit of 18 or 20 percent of our GDP. I thought a 10 percent limit was better. When queried by a reporter as to why 10 percent, I told him that if 10 percent is good enough for the Baptist Church, it ought to be good enough for Congress.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He has authored more than 150 publications, including many in scholarly journals, and has frequently given expert testimony before Congressional committees on public policy issues ranging from labor policy to taxation and spending.

5 comments from readers  

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This seems like a band-aid for the symptoms rather than a cure for the disease. The root problems are (1) Congress has become unaccountable, (2) Congress has contrived to spend money on all manner of unconstitutional and immoral things.

We need to restrict congress to proper spending (essentially defense and the courts) and fine, jail, or execute its members for the laws they break and their treasonous, unconstitutional acts.

Still, this proposed amendment might be a good stop-gap -- as restoring constitutional government might take time. But there are several issues:

(1) 20% is way too high. 50 years of 20%+ spending have all but wrecked this country.

(2) There need to be solid penalties for non-compliance. Heavy fines and jail time.

(3) Congress is currently charged with policing itself (and the other 2 branches), but it has failed/abdicated in all but a few minor cases. Perhaps an independent jury could be given oversight?

(4) We already see that numbers are routinely manipulated with no repercussions. For example, the "unemployment rate" (U-3) is known lie invented because the better estimate (U-6) was an "inconvenient truth". Still this number (U-3) is reported as X one week only to be quietly adjusted upwards later. Months later we learn, for example, that "mistakes" were made and that the, already phony, rate did exceed 10% after all.

So, who defines GDP? When the CBO, OMB, etc. have already proven to be not-so-independent, whose measurement counts?
I wanted to comment specifically on the proposed amendment that would limit government spending to a specific percentage of GDP. I understand the idea here, but I don't think that a percentage is necessarily the best route here. Based on that, as long as GDP keeps going up, so can spending. This could easily persuade politicians to artificially inflate the economy in order to garner more spending. I don't necessarily have a better solution, but that was one thought.

Also, if the president and 2/3 of both houses are required for approval, a majority vote of the supreme court should also be required. I've been very disappointed that we have strayed away from 3 separate but equal bodies of government into the executive branch, which has become superior to the legislative branch, and then there's the judicial branch which has become wholly separate. We need to get back to the constitution in all areas of government.
The federal government spending limit of 18 to 20% of GDP set by the spending limit Williams discussed accommodates much too much unconstitutional spending. Even Williams' proposed 10% limit, good enough for the Baptists, is too good for the power-lusting federal government. In other writings, Williams has suggested that federal constitutional spending is about one-third the spending average over the years prior to the Great Socialist Recession. Legitimate spending should fit nicely within the 6 to 8% of GDP range.
How about Judge Narragansett's amendment? "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade." from the denouement of "Atlas Shrugged".
An "amendment fix" assumes written law limits gov. History shows the opposite. The question Ayn Rand asked in her essay "Who Will Protect Us from Our Protectors?" has never been answered. The American Revoluntion was the first step towards freedom based on putting the people first by making gov a servant. The experiment failed. Gov has not been limited. We must go back and question if gov can ever be limited. Perhaps the solution is not to delegate the authority for protection to anyone, but to keep it to ourselves. As self owners we are responsibile for ourselves and nobody else, so we should not be forcing others to pay for collective security, i.e., national security by taxation or any other method using initiation of force.
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