How the States Can Make the Debt Ceiling Debate Real

Published February 11, 2015

For the past year or so, there has been no statutory limit on how much the federal government borrows. The debt ceiling was abandoned in the last budget deal. But in the coming weeks, it is scheduled to return—along with the predictable illusion of a debate over whether to lift the ceiling or not.

We can fairly predict the debt ceiling debate will boil down to political theater—cynics would call it a kabuki performance—because Washington always lifts the debt ceiling. Of course, fervent handwringing will no doubt ensue during that debate. It is even possible that the federal government will “shut down” (which really means: “selectively cease operations so as to punish the public collectively for any delay in debt spending”). If the champions of fiscal responsibility try nothing new, business-as-usual will quickly and inevitably resume.

But there is a real chance things could be different this time. Something new is indeed afoot. At least twelve states have filed or will file legislation to join the Compact for a Balanced Budget, which was formed by Alaska and Georgia last year. Together, if these fourteen states are successfully joined by twenty-four more, the Compact could deliver a federal Balanced Budget Amendment as soon as next year.

All that is needed is for simple majorities of Congress to do what they got elected to do by passing a resolution to set the Compact’s amendment process in motion.

Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar and a growing contingent of his colleagues are poised to do just that. Gosar plans to introduce the congressional resolution that will activate the Compact for a Balanced Budget. He knows that passing the resolution would be the perfect countermeasure to demands for still more debt spending.

No presidential signature is required for the Compact-activating resolution. By contrast, overcoming presidential threats to popular spending programs in the course of the debt ceiling debate can only be overcome via the passage of new appropriations that require a presidential signature. By supporting the resolution activating the Compact for a Balanced Budget, congressional champions of fiscal responsibility could finally get something done instead of burning all of their political capital in the course of losing the debt-ceiling debate (yet again). The debt ceiling debate could be lost (as always) safe in the knowledge that the war would ultimately be won by advancing the Compact’s Balanced Budget Amendment.

Once ratified, the Compact’s proposed amendment would bring permanent external discipline to Washington by imposing a constitutional debt limit. That debt limit could only be lifted with the approval of a majority of state legislatures within sixty days after an increase is proposed by Congress. State legislators who are familiar with budgeting and state debt limits, who are closer to the American people, and who have no control over the underlying appropriations would be in a position to judge the wisdom of borrowing beyond the debt limit.

National debt policy judgments will thereby become more impartial, more resistant to special interest influence, and more transparent as the debt ceiling debate occurs in 50 state capitals.

At the very least, the outcome of debt ceiling debates under the Compact’s Amendment would finally be uncertain. This would ignite a revolution of fiscal responsibility in Washington driven by necessity alone.

Because of this looming and rare opportunity in Congress, it has never been more important for the States to continue to show leadership. Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming must not hesitate in passing the Compact for a Balanced Budget at this critical moment in time. Twenty-four more states must join the fight as well.

After all, with the gross federal debt exceeding 100% of gross domestic product, and $18.1 trillion, the seriousness of the nation’s debt problem cannot be understated. The federal debt is out of control and the current course is unsustainable. The federal debt threatens our future and burdens our children and grandchildren. Even worse, unlimited borrowing capacity has enabled unprincipled politicians to promise $80 to $205 trillion in unfunded entitlement programs.

Not only is each child in America today born with a huge federal mortgage that they will be taxed to pay, but tens of millions of Americans of all ages are living and planning their lives in reliance upon the “Big Lie” that the promised safety net will protect them. We have a moral obligation to address this looming crisis that will destroy our way of life. The out-of-control federal debt will bankrupt our country and cripple the economy if we don’t get it under control.

If the threat of bankruptcy were not sufficient cause for reform, allowing the federal government unlimited borrowing capacity is still an intolerable position. The fact is that the federal government’s limitless credit card cannot help but cause endless fiscal irresponsibility. Limitless borrowing capacity hides the costs of waste, fraud and abuse from current voters and shifts those costs into the future, saddling our kids and their kids with an unbearable burden—when the responsible elected officials are safely out of office. More than anything else, unlimited borrowing capacity is the source and enabler of an ineffective, overstretched, and overreaching federal government.

But the justification for limiting the federal government’s borrowing capacity is driven by more than basic principles of good governance, economics, or morality. Thomas Jefferson was right when, on Nov. 26, 1798, he wrote to his friend John Taylor: “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our constitution; I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government to the genuine principles of its constitution. I mean an additional article taking from the federal government the power of borrowing.”

Simply put, imposing a strong limit on the federal government’s borrowing capacity is the single most impactful constitutional reform we could achieve if we want to save and restore the Republic.

For all of these reasons, the political game in Washington must change when the debt ceiling debate resumes. We must impose a limit on the federal government’s credit card before it is too late. The Compact for a Balanced Budget would do just that.

Fortunately, Congress is poised to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. But not without bold, continued and determined leadership from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wyoming.


[Originally published at Western Free Press]