Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in Friday's paper edition of The Post, incorrectly said that a Senate vote this week expressed support for Sen. Mike Lee's balanced-budget proposal. The vote was not on his specific proposal. This version has been corrected.

Why we need a balanced-budget amendment

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By Mike Lee
Friday, March 4, 2011

Amending the Constitution is not easy, nor should it be. That the Constitution has been amended just 27 times demonstrates that the process is reserved for only the most important circumstances. Our nation's critical need to balance the federal budget rises to that level.

Any effort to amend the Constitution will start in the Senate Judiciary Committee. So far, five other Republican members of the committee, on which I serve, have introduced or co-sponsored a balanced-budget amendment.

This week, 58 senators - including all 47 Republicans, 10 Democrats and Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent - recognized this urgent need and expressed support for a balanced-budget requirement. I have put forward a proposal that would require a balanced budget every fiscal year; limit federal spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product; and require a two-thirds vote in Congress to increase taxes, raise the debt limit or run a specific deficit.

A similar measure in the House has more than 120 co-sponsors.

This is a vital issue and one on which I am committed to lead the effort in the Senate.

The vast majority of states have constitutional or statutory mandates to balance their budgets each fiscal period. Even during this tough economic climate, most states have been able to prioritize their obligations and make tough choices. The federal government should be expected to do the same.

First, a balanced-budget requirement will ensure we do not continue to drive our country further into debt by trying to do all things for all people. There are some programs we simply cannot afford, but deficit spending makes it too easy not to say no.

When Republicans and Democrats are forced to spend only what we take in, Congress will not be able to sidestep tough decisions about our national priorities.

Second, balancing our budget today will avoid even tougher choices tomorrow. Proponents of investments in areas such as education, infrastructure and energy should welcome a balanced-budget amendment because it will help make money available in the future for these priorities. Under the president's recent budget proposal, which runs a deficit every year, payments on the national debt will quadruple over the next decade, crowding out important resources.

Delaying the inevitable only increases the severity of the cuts to important programs.

Finally, a structural budget restraint is necessary to overcome Congress's insatiable appetite to spend. Both parties deserve blame for irresponsible spending. A balanced-budget amendment is the only way to ensure that Congress acts in the best interest of the country, regardless of who is in power.

Critics worry that an amendment that requires a two-thirds vote to circumvent under any circumstance may prove problematic in the case of an emergency. But history shows that in real emergencies, it is not difficult for Congress to produce a supermajority.

Three days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the House passed an emergency supplemental spending bill, 422 to 0. The Senate passed it 96 to 0.

In contrast, Americans were told that President Obama's stimulus bill was a necessary response to an economic emergency. After passing on pure party-line votes in the House (246 to 183) and Senate (60 to 38), the bill failed to create the kind of job growth the president promised. The stimulus would not have passed had it been held to the standards of my proposal, which required a two-thirds vote, and that would have saved taxpayers nearly $1 trillion.

I am ready and willing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see that a balanced-budget amendment clears the Judiciary Committee and receives a full vote on the floor of the Senate. My proposal is strict, enforceable and holds the federal government to a necessarily higher standard.

Other senators have good ideas, and I am open to considering and incorporating additional proposals as long as a meaningful balanced-budget amendment remains in effect.

The federal government has run out of excuses. I agree with the president that the federal government can and should live within its means. A balanced-budget amendment will turn that rhetoric into a reality.

The writer is a Republican senator from Utah.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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