A Final Vindication of the Principle of State Sovereignty in Article V
August 22, 2016
Fed Up? This #GivingTuesday Be Heard
November 28, 2017
What is the point of a Balanced Budget Amendment when the federal government does not follow the Constitution?
October 17, 2014
That's the question that is all too often posed rhetorically; as if it revealed some self-evident truth; as if there were no answer to the question. Indeed, there is no answer to the question as posed. Instead, the premise of this question must be challenged.
If one studies history, one will see that even if the federal government doesn’t obey all of the Constitution all of the time, it does obey most of it most of the time.
Need examples? Term limits for the President. Direct popular election for the Senate. Each House of Congress setting its own rules. Treaties needing the Senate for ratification. Bills requiring Presidential presentment. Political free speech and association (for the most part). Jury trials for serious crimes. Congress having exclusive appropriation power. The right to armed self-defense (in recent years).
The truth is that the Constitution has never, ever been totally irrelevant. Rather, the willingness of the federal government to respect the Constitution waxes and wanes.
Maintaining respect for the Constitution is a constant game of tug of war.
So the question should really be, given that the Constitution is relevant and mostly enforced, although not entirely foolproof and ironclad, how will an Amendment like the Compact’s Balanced Budget Amendment do any good?
First, we must recognize that bad actors have always tried and will always try to beat the system; and there will always be a lot of bad actors involved in government. Sometimes even the good guys become the bad guys under the corrupting influence of power.
Barely ten years after ratification, for example, President John Adams and the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts and tried to imprison Thomas Jefferson and others like him for free political speech. Brother has turned against brother on more than one occasion in more than one Republic.
That's why a well-designed amendment divides power to ensure no one can easily consolidate all power in one convenient location.
A well-designed amendment also divides power to ensure ambition holds ambition in check—so that the striving of bad actors in one department will be resisted not only by good actors, but also by the striving of bad actors in another department.
In other words, a well-designed constitutional amendment is not premised on the virtue of those who serve in government. Instead, it is designed for a heavy load of bad actors. It is designed to incentivize the wrong people to do the right things even if they do so for the wrong reasons.
This structural design principle is a big reason why so much of the Constitution is still enforced, despite a culture that many believe has deteriorated on most measures of morality. It is also why a well-designed constitutional amendment, which divides power and balances ambition against ambition, can be expected to have a lasting impact.
Second, we must recognize that an amendment sets a very important boundary line for political conduct. It gives immediate moral high ground to the amendment’s supporters, and it forces opponents to wait for extreme situations, sneaky tactics, or pure political muscle to override it.
It is a clear political advantage for the progressive Left, for example, to have the 16th Amendment (income tax) and the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators) in place.
It is a clear political advantage for gun rights advocates to have the 2nd Amendment in place.
These amendments, and others, set the stage for who is right and who is wrong in the political debate. They skew that debate in their favor, if nothing else. And if you add to that political advantage, an occasional willingness of courts, Congress and the President to enforce those amendments, then you get an overall huge advantage politically.
As these observations underscore, amendments matter because there is nothing more important to winning the political game than control over the rules of the political game, even if those rules are occasionally violated. Folks who cede power over constitutional amendments to their political opponents will lose the political game.
A well-designed amendment, like a well-designed Constitution, can resist considerable efforts to undermine it over long periods of time. Nothing is perfect. But you don't need perfection to have something that's good enough.
That is why the Compact for a Balanced Budget deserves your support. Its proposed Balanced Budget Amendment seizes the moral high ground by limiting the federal government’s ability to mortgage the future of our kids and their kids with obligations they never chose to incur. It defends this moral high ground by dividing the power to incur debt between the federal government and the states, which will balance ambition against ambition.
In short, the Compact’s Balanced Budget Amendment has the two fundamental characteristics of a lasting constitutional reform. It is far more than a parchment barrier because it effectively channels political power to support the policy it advances through the incentives it creates.
Concedely, nothing lasts forever. It is possible that the Compact's Balanced Budget Amendment will ultimately be undermined in some unforeseeable way. But by proving the concept of state-originated constitutional reform, we are enhancing our ability to deploy the Compact for America approach to Article V again and again.
Passing the Compact for a Balanced Budget will thereby enhance our ability to seize back the advantage in the endless tug of war that is and always will be the nature of politics.
Surrender to the status quo is never an option if we want to restore and preserve the Republic.