The Consitution, the Debt Ceiling and a Real Balanced Budget Amendment

An Argument for a Constitutional Amendment to Sunset Federal Laws that Tax or Spend

Congress reached a new high in pointless political theater today when the House tacked a balanced budget constitutional amendment to their debt ceiling increase.[1]  With unbridled hypocrisy, tea party purists who regularly bash judicial activism tried to hand the power of the purse to the Supreme Court[2] only to have Harry Reid and the liberal left intervene.[3]  Opposites day, D.C. style, how very exciting![4]

Before we invoke the spirit of Harry Blackmun to solve Congress’ spending addiction (from wherever the author of Roe v. Wade might currently reside),[5] perhaps we should first isolate the source of the spending addiction and entertain whether the narcotic or cure bodes greater ill.  Who exactly decides what gets spent from the US Treasury?  Congress does, of course, but which Congress?  President Obama’s 2012 budget proposed roughly $1.4 trillion in “discretionary” spending by the current Congress and $2.4 trillion in “non-discretionary” spending enacted by Congresses of the past.[6]  It seems spending addictions are hereditary.

Twenty percent of America’s current spending resulted from the Social Security Act of 1935[7]; another twenty percent resulted from enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965[8]; with over 16,000 changes to the tax code since 1986, Congress has actually managed to spend as much through tax code entitlements as the Treasury receives in revenue from the individual income tax[9][10].  The dead hand of the past rules today’s budget from the grave[11].  America needs a Rule of Perpetuities for laws that tax or spend.

What’s a good-hearted right-wing extremist supposed to do?  Would Harry Blackmun have solved today’s debt ceiling crisis by cutting taxes or cutting LBJ’s great society[12][13]?  Once Congress passes a law that taxes or spends, wild horses cannot drag the law from the US Code.  Forget the third rail[14], no Congress no matter how far removed by commissions will ever touch it; try instead to imagine repeal of the tax deduction for health insurance[15], or accelerated depreciation for corporate jets[16].

Congress does not need a balanced budget constitutional amendment to avoid making decisions by handing them off to the judiciary, Congress needs a constitutional amendment to force it to make hard decisions.  To accomplish this, SUNSETtheIRS proposes an amendment to the Constitution that automatically sunsets laws that tax or spend ten years after enactment.[17]  Not even Harry Blackmun could interpret judicial activism into a sunset.  Congress can stop a sunset by re-enactment of a law, however, maintaining laws on the books will demand a vote and bring accountability to our elected officials.

No magical mechanism exists to enforce fiscal discipline, but a Sunset Amendment to the Constitution will end yesterday’s mistakes as tomorrow’s excuses.

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