As Congress considers what to do about federal overspending and overborrowing, conservatives must maintain focus. We must pursue the path that drives down federal spending and borrowing and gets to a balanced budget, while preserving our ability to protect America and without raising taxes. An important part of that conservative agenda is adoption of a sound—repeat, a sound—Balanced Budget Amendment. A Balanced Budget Amendment is not sound if it leads to balancing the federal budget by tax hikes instead of spending cuts. Thus, a sound Balanced Budget Amendment must prohibit raising taxes unless a two-thirds majority of the membership of both Houses of Congress votes to raise them. Without the two-thirds majority requirement, the Balanced Budget Amendment becomes the means for big spenders to raise taxes.
Supporters of the Balanced Budget Amendment rightly want to force the federal government to live within its means—to spend no more than it takes in. Because the government has failed for decades to follow that balanced budget principle, America is now $14.294 trillion in debt, a debt of more than $45,000 for every person in the United States.
President Obama is making things worse. In discussions with congressional leaders, he has pushed hard to get authority to borrow yet more trillions of dollars and hike taxes. And the White House reiterated this week that President Obama opposes amending the Constitution to require the federal government to balance its budget.
A Sound Balanced Budget Amendment Must Require Two-Thirds Majorities to Raise Federal Taxes
Like 72 percent of the American people, The Heritage Foundation favors passage by the requisite two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and ratification by the requisite 38 states of an effective Balanced Budget Amendment to become part of our Constitution. Heritage has made clear that an effective Balanced Budget Amendment must control spending, taxation, and borrowing; ensure the defense of America; and enforce, through the legislative process and without interference by the judicial branch, the requirement to balance the budget. A sound Balanced Budget Amendment will drive down federal spending and end federal borrowing.
To date, Congress has proposed one largely sound Balanced Budget Amendment for consideration—Senate Joint Resolution 10, often called the Hatch-Lee Amendment after its main proponents. It has a number of important features, such as an annual federal spending cap of not to exceed 18 percent of the economy’s annual output of goods and services (called the gross domestic product, or GDP) that Congress cannot exceed, except by a law passed with two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress or in specified circumstances involving military necessity.
A crucial feature is included in section 4 of the Balanced Budget Amendment proposed by Senate Joint Resolution 10: “Any bill that imposes a new tax or increases the statutory rate of any tax or the aggregate amount of revenue may pass only by a two-thirds majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote.” The requirement that no tax hikes occur without the approval of 290 Representatives and 67 Senators is essential in a sound Balanced Budget Amendment. Without the requirement for two-thirds majorities for any tax increase, the Balanced Budget Amendment becomes a sword for big spenders to use to raise taxes, instead of a shield to protect Americans from tax hikes. Those who seek to anchor into our Constitution a requirement to balance the budget must always remember that, if the only requirement is “balance,” that can be achieved two ways—cut spending or hike taxes. A sound Balanced Budget Amendment will balance the budget by driving down federal spending and not by driving up federal taxes.
Balanced-Budget States That Allow Simple Majorities for Tax Hikes Face Situations Very Different from That of the Federal Government
Some look at the experience of states that have requirements in their constitutions for a balanced state budget and draw the wrong conclusion about the need for two-thirds majorities for taxation. They mistakenly conclude that a requirement merely for simple majorities in state legislatures to raise taxes suffices to keep state taxation under control and therefore that a federal Balanced Budget Amendment should require only simple majorities in Congress to raise taxes. But the balanced budget requirement at the state level occurs in a very different context from such a requirement at the federal level.
As a practical matter, state legislators regularly work and live among the people they represent, often do their legislative work face-to-face with their constituents, and often depend upon direct contact with voters to persuade voters to keep the legislators in office. As a result, state legislators tend to be closely attuned and responsive to the need of their constituents for reasonableness in taxation. In contrast, U.S. Senators and Representatives spend much of their time distant from the people they represent, often deal with their constituents through the insulation of large staffs, and amass large campaign funds through political fundraising that allow them to depend more upon expensive mass communications than upon direct contact with voters to persuade the voters to keep them in office. As a result, U.S. Senators and Representatives tend to be less directly attuned and responsive to the need of their constituents for reasonableness in taxation than state legislators are. Accordingly, while a requirement for merely simple majorities in state legislatures to raise taxes may suffice to keep taxes under control in that state, simple majorities are not likely to keep taxes under control at the federal level—as the experience of federal tax increases in the last 50 years proves.
Some who recognize the need for taxpayer protection by requiring supermajorities, rather than just simple majorities, of the two Houses of Congress to raise taxes think a supermajority of three-fifths of both Houses would suffice. While three-fifths would add a modicum of taxpayer protection in the House, three-fifths would add little if anything in the way of taxpayer protection in the Senate, which already often requires a three-fifths majority to proceed to consideration of legislation. The existing three-fifths rule in the Senate has often failed to protect taxpayers from federal tax increases in the past. A sound Balanced Budget Amendment would add protection for taxpayers in both Houses of Congress by a requirement for two-thirds majorities of the membership of both Houses to raise taxes.
Conclusion: Adopt the Two-Thirds Majority Requirement for Tax Hikes, to Make the Balanced Budget Amendment the Instrument of Spending Cuts and Not Tax Hikes
America’s soon-to-be New Minority—people who pay federal income tax—need protection from unreasonable taxation. When all Americans have the right to vote, but only a minority has the duty to pay the federal income taxes from which all Americans benefit, the risk is high that a non-taxpaying majority will elect a Congress pledged to adopt taxation that oppresses the taxpaying minority. The impulse to seek something for nothing has regrettably taken root in the American body politic in the past century. The requirement in the Balanced Budget Amendment of a two-thirds majority of the membership of both Houses of Congress to raise taxes will protect a taxpaying minority against oppressive taxation.
As Congress continues on the path toward adopting a joint resolution to recommend a Balanced Budget Amendment to the states for ratification, Congress should ensure that the Amendment includes a requirement for approval by two-thirds of the membership of the two Houses of Congress for tax hikes. Absent such a requirement, the Balanced Budget Amendment will encourage tax hikes instead of spending cuts as the means to balance the budget, making the Amendment the friend of the tax, spend and borrow crowd, instead of the friend of those who believe in limited government, free enterprise, and individual freedom.
Edwin Meese III is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy and Chairman of the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.