How to Control Congress

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During the early ’80s, I was a member of the National Tax Limitation Committee’s distinguished blue-ribbon drafting committee that included notables such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Paul McCracken, Bill Niskanen, Craig Stubblebine, Robert Bork, Aaron Wildavsky, Robert Nisbet, Robert Carleson and others. We drafted a Balanced Budget/Spending Limitation amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Senate passed that amendment on Aug. 4, 1982, by a vote of 69 to 31, two more than the two-thirds vote required for approval of a constitutional amendment. The vote was bipartisan: 47 Republicans, 21 Democrats and 1 Independent voted for the amendment.

It was a different story in the House of Representatives. Its leadership, under Tip O’Neill tried to prevent a vote on the amendment; however, a discharge petition forced a vote on it. While the amendment was approved by a majority (236 to 187), it did not meet the two-thirds required by Article V of the Constitution. The vote was again bipartisan: 167 Republicans, 69 Democrats. The amendment can be found in Milton and Rose Friedman’s “Tyranny of the Status Quo.”

The benefit of a balanced budget/spending limitation amendment is that it would give Congress a bottom line just as we in the private sector have a bottom line. Congress would be forced to play one spending constituency off against another, rather than, as it does today, satisfy most spending constituents and pass the buck to the rest of us and future generations in the forms of federal deficits and debt.

The 1980s discussions settled on giving Congress a spending limit of 18 or 20 percent of our GDP. I thought a 10 percent limit was better. When queried by a reporter as to why 10 percent, I told him that if 10 percent is good enough for the Baptist Church, it ought to be good enough for Congress.

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  • Shaun

    Given the outright contempt that members of Congress have shown our Constitution lately – using “cost of living adjustments” to give themselves concurrent raises to sidestep the clear intent of the 27th Amendment and attempts by Pelosi and Barney Frank to impose special taxes on bonuses and executive salaries which are ex post facto in effect and Bills of Attainder in their intended effect, why should anyone expect that they would respect an Amendment limiting their power to spend? They would ignore it and their example of blatant disrespect would spread to the rest of society and our Constitution would become a mere symbol with less impact on the running of government than that of the British monarchy over the government of the UK. The only difference would be that the monarch would continue to enjoy some esteem whereas our Constitution would have become ad irrelevant to our politics as have the numerous past constitutions of third world nations.

  • dgene

    Go baby, go!

  • lisag

    It's the spending! It's the spending! It's the spending! Save a congressman's soul by putting in a spending cap. Taxes never solved anything, they only in crease spending.

  • Philosopherking

    I like your idea but if you set a limit such as 20% the governments will simply set tax rates at 20%. I would like to see total taxes taken at about 2% for the average person.