January 8, 2009
Anyone who is keeping track of the Federal budget knows that the fiscal deficit is climbing toward the once-unimaginable level of one trillion dollars. It's one of the saddest legacies of the Bush administration. And if that weren't bad enough, president-elect (or president-in-effect?) Barack Obama is pushing hard for an "economic stimulus" plan that would put the U.S. Treasury even more deeply into the red. (Perhaps we should start capitalizing the R, as in the money we owe to Red China.)
With that sobering backdrop, State Senator Emmett Hanger announced he will submit a bill calling for a constitutional convention whose main purpose would be to enact an amendment that would mandate a balanced budget. (Hat tip to Steve Kijak for bringing this to my attention.) The news was reported in yesterday's News Leader, and was derided as a "hare-brained scheme" in today's editorial. That's overstating things just a bit. Personally, I tend to be dubious of arbitrary constraints on legislatures such as balanced-budget requirements or term limits -- which the editorial endorses, ironically. As I wrote about GOP strategist Frank Luntz's proposal along those lines in February 2007,
I wouldn't want to insist dogmatically on a balanced budget amendment, any more than I would endorse an iron-clad commitment to cut taxes, regardless of the circumstances. But still, it's an appropriate general direction to head.
I would grant that in certain recessionary conditions, such as the present, a case can be made that deficit spending will have a stimulative effect. Assuming that this is always the case, however, as Keynesians do, is very dangerous. As with the stimulus tax rebate Bush pushed through last spring, much of the extra money people receive ends up being spent on imports from countries like China. Given that the situation at hand is very grave indeed, we may have no other choice [but to move ahead with a constitutional convention, as Sen. Hanger has proposed]. I think the best approach would be to make congressional salaries, office expense budgets, or retirement funds contingent upon the fiscal balance. That way, there will be a built-in incentive for congressmen and women to exercise fiscal prudence, and if they truly do think that deficit spending is in the urgent national interest, they can put their own money on the line to back it up.
Aside from the merits of the balanced budget amendment, there is also great cause for worry about what mischief a constitutional convention might lead to. It is a procedural measure that has not been used since the Constitution itself was drafted in 1787, and given the contemporary climate of distrust and cynicism, such an assembly could well be "hijacked" by political factions that do not have the public interest at heart. So I would hope that the mere talk about creating a constitutional convention would prod the U.S. Congress into shaping up and reforming its own budgetary practices before it really is too late.
A Russian foreign affairs expert named Igor Panarin has been predicting that the United States will collapse and break into regional fragments by the year 2010, and he stands by his assessment. See the Wall Street Journal; hat tip to Stacey Morris.