28’s the charm? Hatch introduces Balanced Budget Amendment

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA – As Congress returns into session this week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican in the Senate, addressed the pressing problems posed by the national debt and introduced his solution Monday: the Balanced Budget Amendment, legislation he has sponsored 28 times in almost four decades proposing the Constitution be amendmended to require a balanced federal budget.

According to a news release from Hatch’s office, the proposed amendment has only become more important over time as the national debt adjusted for inflation is now seven times what it was when he first introduced the amendment in 1979.

A longtime advocate of fiscal responsibility, Hatch first introduced the Balanced Budget Amendment in his first term. According to the news release, Hatch’s “dogged work on the issue earned him the nickname ‘Mr. Balanced Budget’ from President Ronald Reagan.”

Addressing the Senate, Hatch said:

Two essential facts compel me once again to introduce a constitutional amendment to require fiscal responsibility: the gravity of the national debt crisis and the fact that neither willpower nor legislation will solve it.

Here is the heart of the matter, Mr. President. First, the national debt crisis poses a significant and growing threat to the economic and national security of this country. In fact, we have never been in such an extended, perilous period than we are right now. Second, Congress has tried and failed to address this crisis by either willpower or legislation and will actually do so only if the Constitution requires it. Third, the decision whether to use the Constitution to require fiscal responsibility belongs to the American people, not to Congress.

We can either take the responsibility we were elected for and propose a balanced budget amendment or the American people may do it for us.

Watch the speech in the video top of this report.

The full speech, as prepared for delivery and provided by Hatch’s office, is below:

Mr. President, 70 years ago this May, the Senate Appropriations Committee sent to the full Senate a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. It had been proposed by Sen. Millard Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland. In its report, the committee said this:

‘In no other way except by an amendment to the Constitution can Congress be compelled to balance its budget in peacetime.’

Seven decades of experience prove that the Appropriations Committee was right, and we have never been in a more serious, perilous situation than we are today. Two essential facts compel me once again to introduce a constitutional amendment to require fiscal responsibility: the gravity of the national debt crisis and the fact that neither willpower nor legislation will solve it.

The greatest challenge in describing the gravity of the national debt crisis is deciding how much of the bad news to present at one time. During the 2008 presidential campaign, one of the candidates criticized the outgoing President for adding $4 trillion to the national debt. That increase, Barack Obama said, was not only irresponsible but ‘unpatriotic.’ The national debt on Inauguration Day 2009 was $10.6 trillion and on Inauguration Day 2017 it was $19.9 trillion. If a $4 trillion increase was irresponsible and unpatriotic, what words describe a $9.3 trillion increase?

President Obama won the 2008 election with the Government Accountability Office warning that the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook was unsustainable. In its January 2017 assessment of the nation’s fiscal health, GAO reports that the national debt as a share of GDP in 2016 was 75 percent higher than the average since World War II. As it had before, GAO concluded that “the federal government’s fiscal path is unsustainable.”

One way to understand the gravity of the national debt is to compare it to the size of the economy, or the gross domestic product. In other words, we can compare what we owe to our ability to pay. When President Obama took office, the national debt was 82 percent of GDP and it is 105 percent of GDP today.

Some economists prefer to evaluate the national debt as a percentage of tax revenue, that is, by comparing what we owe to what we earn. The national debt rose from approximately 350 percent of federal revenue when President Obama took office to 600 percent of federal revenue today.

But neither numbers nor percentages tell the whole story because the national debt crisis is becoming not only a bigger crisis, but a different kind of crisis. During the last several years of skyrocketing national debt, the interest rate on that debt has been nearly zero. If interest rates had been at the historical average, annual interest costs would be more than twice what they are today and on their way to consuming more than half of all federal revenue. And now interest rates are starting to creep up. The Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget both anticipate that, over the next decade, interest payments on the national debt alone will approach one trillion dollars per year.

In other words, as GAO found in its new fiscal report, the growing national debt now means that the rising cost of servicing that debt becomes one of the drivers of the growing debt itself. This is becoming what one study calls a self-propelling crisis. A national debt of this magnitude dampens the economic growth necessary to minimize borrowing to fund the government, and rising interest costs for such a monstrous debt add to the debt on which more interest must then be paid.

Last month, the Treasury Department echoed this point in its financial report for the U.S. government for fiscal year 2016. It concluded: ‘The debt-to-GDP ratio rises at an accelerating rate despite primary deficits that flatten out because higher levels of debt lead to higher net interest expenditures, and higher net interest expenditures lead to higher debt. The continuous rise of the debt-to-GDP ratio…indicates that current policy is unsustainable.’

We can also consider the latest budget and economic outlook from the Congressional Budget Office. I want to highlight a few things that stood out to me. First, annual budget deficits are on their way back up after six years of decline. In fact, the budget deficit for fiscal year 2016 will be one-third larger than in 2015.

Second, CBO projects that the national debt will rise by nearly $10 trillion over the next decade. Looking beyond the next decade, CBO says that under current law, the national debt will explode to more than 150 percent of GDP, by far the highest level in American history.

Third, CBO also says that interest on the national debt is itself an increasingly forceful engine driving the debt even higher. Interest payments on the national debt are increasing nearly twice as fast as spending on Social Security and Medicare. Just last month, CBO Director Keith Hall said that, over the next 10 years, interest payments are expected to triple in nominal terms and double relative to GDP.

Fourth, CBO repeated some of the serious negative consequences of this national debt for the budget, the economy, and the nation. In addition to substantially higher interest payments, these include lower productivity and wages, less flexibility by lawmakers to respond to fiscal challenges, and an increased likelihood of a fiscal crisis.

In addition to those problems, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michel Mullen and experts from the Heritage Foundation to the Brookings Institution warn that the national debt crisis is a serious threat to national security.

Economists tell us that national debt above 90 percent of GDP for a sustained period of time will lead to substantially slower economic growth and higher interest rates. The United States is now in the longest period in history with the national debt above that toxic 90 percent level. Not surprisingly, since the recession ended in June 2009, the national debt has grown more than twice as fast, and GDP has grown less than half as fast, as during the comparable period after previous recessions.

It is no wonder that more than two-thirds of Americans say that their concern over the national debt is growing and more than three-quarters of Americans say that the national debt should be among Congress’ top three priorities.

The national debt was once such a top priority. In fact, America’s founders were so determined to avoid debt that their commitment to fiscal balance was often called our unwritten fiscal constitution. President George Washington, for example, told Congress that the regular redemption of the public debt was the most urgent fiscal priority. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 that if he could add a single amendment to the Constitution, it would prohibit the federal government from borrowing. That commitment is long gone. The federal budget has been balanced in only a dozen of the last 80 years and, as I said earlier, we are in the longest period in American history with the debt above 90 percent of GDP.

As its fiscal willpower failed, Congress has also tried to address the debt crisis by legislation. The first bill requiring a balanced budget was introduced in 1934, when the national debt was 40 percent of GDP. Fifty years later, Congress enacted the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act. Since then, we have enacted multiple Budget Control Acts and Budget Enforcement Acts, only to see the national debt climb from 42 percent of GDP in 1985 to 105 percent of GDP today.

Good intentions will not balance the nation’s checkbook. Statutes that Congress can change or ignore will not keep our fiscal house in order. Neither willpower nor legislation will tackle the national debt crisis. Pretending otherwise is the fiscal equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

All the evidence, every bit of it, proves true the conclusion drawn by the Appropriations Committee 70 years ago. In no other way except by an amendment to the Constitution can Congress be compelled to balance its budget in peacetime. We have, as lawyers put it, exhausted our other remedies for this crisis.

This would be a very different country, a freer and more prosperous country, if Congress had already proposed the only solution that exists, a constitutional amendment that requires fiscal responsibility. The first balanced budget amendment was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1936. I introduced my first balanced budget amendment in June 1979, during my first term in the Senate, when the national debt was 32 percent of GDP. That share of GDP doubled by 1997, when the Senate came within one vote of passing a balanced budget amendment that I introduced. It rose to 95 percent when the Senate last voted on a balanced budget amendment in 2011 and is 105 percent of GDP today.

Since this crisis is already so grave and getting worse, and since the only way to tackle it is through the Constitution, we should propose a balanced budget amendment and let the American people decide whether to take this step. Congress, after all, cannot amend the Constitution. A requirement that Congress keep its fiscal house in order cannot become part of the Constitution until it is approved by three-quarters of the states.

Congress, however, is not the only way to propose constitutional amendments. Article V of the Constitution also allows the states to apply for a convention to propose constitutional amendments. Concerned citizens have been working since the mid-1970s to reach the two-thirds threshold for calling such a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment, and are only six states away from that goal. Since Congress has never called an Article V convention, questions remain unresolved and theories untested regarding that method of proposing an amendment. I can assure my colleagues, however, that Congress’ continued failure to propose a balanced budget amendment guarantees that our fellow citizens will continue working to force that course upon us.

These are the two facts we must face: the gravity of the national debt crisis and the failure to address it by willpower or legislation. Perhaps some of my colleagues believe that the Congressional Budget Office is wrong in its disturbing projections and dire warnings. And that the Government Accountability Office is mistaken and the fiscal path we are on is sustainable after all. And that the Treasury Department is wrong about the spiral of increased debt and growing interest payments. And that the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget are wrong about how national debt interest payments will continue to grow and add to the debt. And that economists are wrong to warn about the impact of sustained national debt of this magnitude.

If my colleagues are convinced that everyone else is wrong and our fiscal future is just fine after all, then they should say so and try to make that case to the American people. I, for one, think that will be a very tough sell. Americans have been polled about this issue dozens of times over the years by major polling firms and national news organizations. Three-quarters of Americans supported a balanced budget amendment in 1976 and three-quarters support it now.

But perhaps all of these polls over the last 40 years are wrong. Perhaps the American people are content watching the national debt swallow the economy. Perhaps our fellow citizens are actually OK with slower economic growth, a rising threat to national security, the greater likelihood of a fiscal crisis, and an unsustainable path to fiscal disaster. If that is what the American people actually believe, then they certainly will decline to ratify a balanced budget amendment.

The real reason that members of Congress refuse to give the American people this choice is that they know what the American people will say. I say with respect, but as strongly as I can, that this is not a legitimate basis for refusing to propose a balanced budget amendment. In our system of government, as founder James Wilson once put it, the people are the masters of government. They alone have authority to set rules for government. This choice must be theirs, not ours.

Here is the heart of the matter, Mr. President. First, the national debt crisis poses a significant and growing threat to the economic and national security of this country. In fact, we have never been in such an extended, perilous period than we are right now. Second, Congress has tried and failed to address this crisis by either willpower or legislation and will actually do so only if the Constitution requires it. Third, the decision whether to use the Constitution to require fiscal responsibility belongs to the American people, not to Congress.

We can either take the responsibility we were elected for and propose a balanced budget amendment or the American people may do it for us.

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2 Comments

  • comments February 28, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    Is 40 the charm? As in 40 solid years in the senate and not ever doing anything for anyone but enriching himself and his wealthy cronies that throw him kickbacks.

  • high5 February 28, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    Yep Take Responsibility or LEAVE,Retire GO Home, Golf, Fish, anything but stay on tax payroll.

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