‘Tis the season for hand-wringing about the federal budget.
As taxpayers, most of us know a thing or two about budgeting. We make a budget so that we can plan to use our income responsibly and ensure that we don’t spend more money than we bring home. And yet, in a trend that is disturbingly consistent, the basic rules of budgeting don’t seem to apply to our elected federal officials and the agencies that purport to govern us.
I don’t know how or when it happened, but at some point in our nation’s capital, someone decided to eliminate the link between spending and revenue. The federal version of “budgeting” does not involve trimming the fat until we arrive at a spending level our revenues can support; rather, it is a grand political game, where partisan factions compete to see which one can achieve the most of what its constituents want.
As taxpayers, we could never get away with this.
Imagine a family that, year after year, spent more money than it made. Imagine that, to avoid making the hard choices in order to live within their means, the parents simply drew upon a line of credit to be paid, at some future date, by their children. And imagine, further, the mother and father in a financial race to the bottom, with mom insisting upon lavish overseas vacations while dad is intent upon adding to his collection of antique tractors.
Surely most would agree that such behavior is immoral. And it wouldn’t last for long. Credit limits would be reached, bank accounts overdrawn, and creditors would appear on the doorstep.
Yet somehow, when it comes to our federal government, deficit spending continues, year after year, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. And it isn’t just spending to keep the lights on and continue basic government services – even by today’s definition of “basic.” It’s spending on off-the-wall projects like $1.5 million for the National Science Foundation to put a fish on a treadmill, or a $300,000 joint agency study to conclude that girls play with dolls more than boys.
While federal budgeting should look a lot more like family budgeting in terms of how the process works, there is one aspect in which federal budgeting is supposed to be different from family budgeting – but isn’t.
While our families are constrained in our spending choices by our income – a constraint Washington does not apply to itself – we are otherwise free to determine how we will spend our money. The federal government, on the other hand, does not actually have this prerogative. It is the creature of the states, and the people, operating on the basis of powers we have delegated to it through our national charter, the Constitution. Its collection of taxes and its spending, therefore, should be limited to what is necessary for its legitimate, constitutional functions. These certainly include some big-ticket items like national defense and enforcement of immigration policies, but they do not encompass much of what Congress actually does, like meddling in education and health care, exercising fish, or studying toy choices.
So what can we, the taxpayers, actually do to stop the madness?
The Constitution provides our remedy. Through a state-led convention to propose constitutional amendments as provided in Article V, the states can propose an amendment to clarify Article I’s “General Welfare Clause.” It is the problematically vague language of this provision that has been wrongly interpreted to make a mockery of the concept of “enumerated powers” and opened the floodgates to federal fiscal insanity.
Twelve states have already called for a meeting to propose constitutional amendments to impose fiscal restraints on Washington, limit its power and jurisdiction, and set term limits for federal officials.
Once we achieve the needed constitutional amendments, the next steps will be to eliminate federal spending on agencies and programs that are beyond the scope of D.C.’s authority, reduce the federal tax burden to reflect the proper, more limited role of Washington, and allow the states to take over the programs their citizens need and want.
Of course, it will take considerable effort to achieve this shifting of money and power, but there are so many reasons it’s worth it – including greater accountability at the state level and the ability of ordinary citizens to impact policy-making that happens closer to home.
The most important reason, however, is simply this: It is what the rule of law requires. It’s time to close constitutional loopholes and end the federal fairy-tale spend-fest.