It may seem like tilting at windmills, but long journeys start with small steps and Louisiana should forward a resolution to call a federal constitutional convention to discuss matters related to federal government probity.
The idea builds upon a 2010 effort by state Rep. Nick Lorusso, which argued then for only a balanced budget amendment. Lorusso has indicated he would like to try again and to add at least three other matters: imposing other fiscal restraints on the federal government, limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and term limitation upon members of Congress. For his part, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will have no authority over any resolution to bring about a convention but who could lobby on its behalf, says he supports the idea of a balanced budget amendment and term limits.
According to the federal Constitution, this follows one of the two methods of proposing amendments to the document, which is two-thirds of states calling for a convention, with the other being Congress itself votes to put forward an amendment to the states for ratification. All amendments have occurred this latter way; however, often Congress has preempted the states on this matter to avoid a convention when the number of states proposing a convention to deal with an amendment has gotten close to two-thirds of the whole, so by passing this resolution Louisiana creates more pressure for Congress to repeat in this way.
While lack of details about fiscal restraints and limiting federal government power and jurisdiction leave too much vagueness to consider their merits realistically at this time, certainly the balanced budget amendment and term limits are ideas worthy of placement into the Constitution. The case for the latter has been made solidly and repeatedly: the presumed disadvantages of reduced democracy and expertise are practically zero in that this would disqualify only one of a hundreds of thousands or even millions of eligible candidates every at the fewest dozen years (proposals for Congress typically are six terms for House members, two for Senators) and it is presumptuous to assume the best possible representative automatically is the one with the most recent experience in service; while the advantages of refreshing representation regularly that best reminds those representatives of their connection to the people and to discourage aggrandizement of power into the national government (especially needed as this is a full-time job) more than outweigh any disadvantages.
A federal balanced budget amendment merely follows what 49 other states’ constitutions mandate, that debt not finance recurring operations. However, because of a special function not demanded of states, national defense, typically previous attempts at amendments like these contain an override clause in time of war and/or have a supermajority clause that allows something like a two-thirds or three-quarters vote in Congress to allow debt financing of current expenditures.
Yet there’s an economic use of debt as well that is the national government’s responsibility – its use in monetary policy. In order to reduce the outstanding money supply, a central bank can sell debt instruments. This may be done, for example, to fight inflationary tendencies by removing money from the private sector. But a balanced budget amendment would not really affect this tool, because of the large amount of debt already issued regularly for capital expenditures. In 2013, this for both defense and non-defense purposes was estimated to comprise about 5 percent of all federal government spending, or around $190 billion, which should be more than adequate for marginal adjustments (even as the impact of such operations typically is marginal)
Benefits of an annual balanced budget with a strict opt-out procedure are legion. It places a premium on thinking through priorities and discourages spending money almost solely for its own sake or on small constituencies in logrolling fashion. It prevents the use of debt in an abusive way; that is, discouraging it from reaching such a level that its costs outweigh any benefits such as with a “tipping point” when exceeded costs Americans both in terms of jobs created and income levels – which produces a double cost as government then spends even more to try to compensate, creating a vicious cycle. It encourages keeping debt at a manageable level so that foreign states cannot use debt that they might hold from the U.S. as leverage against U.S. interests. And there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t work, as countries with as economies as large as Germany’s practice it without chaos breaking out – as well as all states but Vermont and including California, which by itself as a government would rank 28th in the entire world in spending.
About the only drawback that a balanced budget amendment with strict opt-out has is it could invite tax raising rather than expenditure cutbacks. But this also can be solved by making tax increases also subject to a supermajority requirement. If the need for spending and tax increases to provide for it, then these will happen, but at least on a basis more subject to mature understanding of what is good for the people and less on calculations to use spending freely to advance officeholders’ attempts to increase their political power.
Such a measure introduced into the Louisiana Legislature as part of a request for a constitutional convention along with imposing term limits would merit passage, and hopefully Lorusso or someone else will introduce such an instrument.