Tag: balanced budget

Who’s Afraid of an Amendments Convention?

Those of us who are upset at how “constitutional law” has gotten far away from the text of the Constitution have more options than just hoping the judiciary tosses us an occasional bone and otherwise writing law review articles and op-eds.  We can also amend the Constitution!

Indeed, the Framers provided a method of constitutional amendment that is easy to understand (if not to execute, at least not since the New Deal Congress and FDR began de facto amending the Constitution without bothering to amend it de jure).  Article V says that an amendment can be sent to the states for ratification upon approval by two thirds of both houses of Congress.  In the alternative, two thirds of the state legislatures can call for an amending convention.  Either way, the resulting proposed amendments must be ratified by three quarters of the states to take effect.

Hand-in-hand with the recent resurgence in limited-government ideas, various amendments have been floated – by Tea Party activists, politicians, academics, and policy analysts.  Randy Barnett’s “repeal amendment” – that a vote by two thirds of states can repeal federal law – is one.  The balanced budget amendment is another.

Congress is unlikely to ever amass a two-thirds majority in favor of limiting its own power, however, so the state-called convention idea looks attractive.  The problem is that many conservatives and libertarians are afraid of a so-called “runaway” convention, with amendments that would eviscerate the Constitution in a way Congress and the courts haven’t yet managed.  Insert your own nightmare scenario: nationalization of industry, required gay marriage, prohibition of private schools, Keith Olbermann as NFL-Commissioner-for-Life – you name it, somebody has invoked it to argue against amending conventions.

These fears have always seemed overblown to me.  I mean, if the American people can propose and ratify amendments that constitutionalize socialism (or whatever), then we’ve lost the political culture ballgame already and might as well go seasteading in Galt’s Gulch.

And now I have backup for my instincts!  Our friends at the Goldwater Institute, in the course of a grand project masterminded by Nick Dranias (the director of their center for constitutional government), are publishing a series of articles by Robert G. Natelson (retired from the University of Montana Law School) regarding constitutional amendments via convention.  The first two are available online and the third one will be there soon.

Here are the key points:

  1. An amendments convention is the ultimate guarantor of state sovereignty. History and law support states limiting the convention to specific topics. Delegates to the convention are bound as agents of the states to stay within the scope of the applications that trigger it. And 38 states must ratify whatever the convention generates as a proposed amendment. In short, the states initiate the process, the states control its subject matter, and the states ratify its product.
  2. The amendments convention concept is not radical. Washington, Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton all agreed that states should use the Article V process to correct errors in the Constitution and rein in the federal government if it oversteps its bounds. Madison even intervened during the nullification debates of the 1830s to chide the states that they should be invoking the Article V process to regain control over the federal government.
  3. The convention will not run away. Any proposed constitutional amendment yielded by the convention requires ratification by 38 states. During the constitutional convention of 1787 the Founders rejected language that would have allowed Article V to establish a foundational convention, substituting language that requires any convention to operate within existing constitutional limits.
  4. There is nothing to lose from an amendments convention because no matter which party controls Congress, the status quo is a runaway federal government.

Read the whole thing.

New CBO Numbers Re-Confirm that Balancing the Budget Is Simple with Modest Fiscal Restraint

Many of the politicians in Washington, including President Obama during his State of the Union address, piously tell us that there is no way to balance the budget without tax increases. Trying to get rid of red ink without higher taxes, they tell us, would require “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts.

I would like to slash the budget and free up resources for private-sector growth, so that sounds good to me. But what’s the truth?

The Congressional Budget Office has just released its 10-year projections for the budget, so I crunched the numbers to determine what it would take to balance the budget without tax hikes. Much to nobody’s surprise, the politicians are not telling the truth.

The chart below shows that revenues are expected to grow (because of factors such as inflation, more population, and economic expansion) by more than 7 percent each year. Balancing the budget is simple so long as politicians increase spending at a slower rate. If they freeze the budget, we almost balance the budget by 2017. If federal spending is capped so it grows 1 percent each year, the budget is balanced in 2019. And if the crowd in Washington can limit spending growth to about 2 percent each year, red ink almost disappears in just 10 years.

These numbers, incidentally, assume that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent (they are now scheduled to expire in two years). They also assume that the AMT is adjusted for inflation, so the chart shows that we can balance the budget without any increase in the tax burden.

I did these calculations last year, and found the same results. And I also examined how we balanced the budget in the 1990s and found that spending restraint was the key. The combination of a GOP Congress and Bill Clinton in the White House led to a four-year period of government spending growing by an average of just 2.9 percent each year.

We also have international evidence showing that spending restraint - not higher taxes - is the key to balancing the budget. New Zealand got rid of a big budget deficit in the 1990s with a five-year spending freeze. Canada also got rid of red ink that decade with a five-year period where spending grew by an average of only 1 percent per year. And Ireland slashed its deficit in the late 1980s by 10 percentage points of GDP with a four-year spending freeze.

No wonder international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary fund and European Central Bank are producing research showing that spending discipline is the right approach.

This video provides all the details.

Tax Loopholes Are Corrupt and Inefficient, but They Should only Be Eliminated if Every Penny of New Revenue Is Used to Lower Tax Rates

There’s been a lot of heated discussion about various preferences, deductions, credits, shelters, and other loopholes in the tax code. Some of this debate has revolved around whether it is legitimate to refer to these provisions as “tax expenditures” or “subsidies.”

Michael Cannon vociferously argues that subsidies and expenditures only occur when the government takes money from person A and gives it to person B. On the other side of the debate are people like Josh Barro of the Manhattan Institute, who argues that tax preferences are akin to subsidies or expenditures since they can be just as damaging as government spending programs when looking at whether resources are efficiently allocated.

Since I’m a can’t-we-all-get-along, uniter-not-divider kind of person, allow me to suggest that this debate should be set aside. After all, we all agree that tax preferences can lead to inefficient outcomes. So let’s call them “tax distortions” and focus on the real issue, which is how best to eliminate them.

This is an important issue because both the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force and the Chairmen of the Simpson-Bowles Commission have unveiled plans that would reduce or eliminate many of these tax distortions and also lower marginal tax rates. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that their plans result in more revenue going to Washington. In other words, the tax increase resulting from fewer tax distortions is larger than the tax decrease resulting from lower tax rates. To put it bluntly, the plans would increase the overall tax burden.

Some argue that this is an acceptable price to pay. They point out, quite correctly, that lower tax rates will help the economy by improving incentives for productive behavior. And they also are right in arguing that fewer tax distortions will help the economy by improving efficiency. Seems like a win-win situation. What’s not to like?

The problem is on the spending side of the fiscal ledger. The Simpson-Bowles Commission and the Domenici-Rivlin Task Force were charged with figuring out how to reduce red ink. We already know from Congressional Budget Office data, however, that we can balance the budget fairly quickly by limiting the growth of government spending. As the chart illustrates, the deficit disappears by 2016-2017 with a hard freeze and goes away by 2019-2020 if spending increases by two percent each year (and this assumes all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are made permanent).

If tax revenue is increased, that simply means that the budget gets balanced at a higher level of spending. And since government spending, at current levels and composition, hinders economic growth by diverting labor and capital to less productive (or unproductive) uses, any proposal that enables higher levels of government spending will further undermine economic performance.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that this analysis is overly optimistic since it assumes that politicians actually will balance the budget. In all likelihood, as explained in today’s Wall Street Journal, any tax increase would probably be followed by even more spending. So if politicians raise the tax burden, we might still have a deficit of $685 billion in 2020 (CBO’s most-recent estimate assuming  all programs are left on auto-pilot), but the overall levels of both spending and taxes would be higher. This modified cartoon captures this real-world effect.

This is why revenue-neutral tax reform, like the flat tax, is the only pro-growth way of eliminating tax distortions.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission and Health Care Spending

Following up on what Dan and Chris have said …

If the co-chairs of President Obama’s fiscal commission were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed eliminating the federal deficit, rather than “reduc[ing] it to 2.2 percent of GDP by 2015.”  Yawn. They would have proposed cutting federal spending (currently, 24 percent of GDP and rising) to match federal tax revenue (currently at 15 percent of GDP).  But the co-chairs proposed only to “bring spending down to 22 percent and eventually 21 percent of GDP.”  Not only does that elicit another yawn, but since the co-chairs only asked for half a loaf, they won’t even get that much.

If the co-chairs were serious about reducing federal spending and deficits, they would have proposed a balanced-budget amendment.  They would have proposed block-granting Medicaid.  They would have proposed implementing Medicare vouchers immediately.  (Vouchers are the only way to reduce Medicare spending while protecting seniors from government rationing.  They would also change the political dynamics that repeatedly stymie efforts to reduce Medicare spending.)  Instead, the co-chairs propose the same ol’ failed strategy of trying to limit Medicare and Medicaid spending using government price-and-exchange controls, which they euphemistically describe as “rebates” and ”payment reforms.”  Along the same lines, they propose strengthening IPAB, ObamaCare’s rationing board.  IPAB’s mandate is – you guessed it – to ration care by fiddling with Medicare and Medicaid’s price and exchange controls.  It will therefore inevitably fall prey to the same political buzzsaw.  To appease Republicans, the co-chairs propose unwise and unconstitutional federal rules that would prevent patients injured by negligent physicians from recovering the full amount they are due (euphemism:  medical malpractice liability “reform”).  Finally, the co-chairs propose that if federal health spending continues to grow faster than GDP growth plus 1 percent, Congress should consider “a premium support system for Medicare” (which could mean vouchers) and “a robust public option and/or all-payer system” for people under age 65 – a debate that wouldn’t even begin until 2020.

Fiscal Commission members, congresscritters, and citizens who are serious about reducing federal spending and deficits – and who are looking for specific ways to cut government spending – should instead consult Cato’s excellent web site DownsizingGovernment.org.

Would You Trade Higher Taxes for Much Lower Spending and Less Red Tape?

I dislike taxes as much as the next person (and probably a lot more), but other policies matter as well, so if I had the choice of replacing current government policies with the ones that existed at the end of the Clinton years, I would gladly make that trade. Yes, it would mean higher tax rates, but it also would mean slashing government spending from 24 percent of GDP down to 18 percent of GDP. It would mean no sleazy TARP bailout, no Sarbanes-Oxley red tape, no expansion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and no added power and authority for the federal government.

This is the argument that I made in this interview on CNBC, though my opponent tried to do his version of the Brezhnev Doctrine (what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable), so I concluded the interview by stating that in the real world higher taxes are completely unacceptable.

To elaborate on this discussion, here’s a chart showing actual revenue over the past decade and what spending would be if policy makers had simply maintained the overall budget level from the last year of the Clinton Administration and allowed spending to grow in line with inflation and population. The deficit would be much smaller. More important, the burden of federal spending would be almost $1 trillion lower.

Here’s How to Balance the Budget

Our fiscal policy goal should be smaller government, but here’s a video for folks who think that balancing the budget should be the main objective.

The main message is that restraining the growth of government is the right way to get rid of red ink, so there is no conflict between advocates of limited government and serious supporters of fiscal balance.

More specifically, the video shows that it is possible to quickly balance the budget while also making all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent and protecting taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. All these good things can happen if politicians simply limit annual spending growth to 2 percent each year. And they’ll happen even faster if spending grows at an even slower rate.

This debunks the statist argument that there is no choice but to raise taxes.

Bending the Cost Curve: Ryan’s Roadmap Would Succeed Where ObamaCare Fails

From my oped in today’s Investors Business Daily:

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) “Roadmap for America’s Future” proposes even tighter limits on Medicare’s growth, leading columnist Bruce Bartlett to opine, “the Medicare actuaries have shown the absurdity of the Ryan plan by denying that Medicare cuts already enacted into law are even worthy of projecting into the future.”

On the contrary, experience and public choice theory suggest that the Ryan plan has a better shot at reducing future Medicare outlays than past efforts, because the Roadmap would change the lobbying game that fuels Medicare’s growth.

For more on Ryan’s Roadmap, click here.  For more on Medicare, read David Hyman’s Medicare Meets Mephistopheles.  For more on public choice economics, click here.