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Wisdom of a Balanced Budget Amendment

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn

The time has come for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The need for such an amendment is clear. Our national debt is nearly $14 trillion and has increased by more than 25 percent since the beginning of the Obama administration. We are now borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar we spend.

Under President Barack Obama’s budget, our debt won’t stop growing anytime soon. Our public debt will reach 63 percent of our economy by the end of this year and will be 90 percent of our economy in just 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Furthermore, the president’s budget will average almost a trillion-dollar deficit every year over the next decade.

Our growing debt represents not just a fiscal challenge, but a national security dilemma. Adm. Mike Mullen , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the debt is “the most significant threat to our national security.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says that the debt “undermines our capacity to act in our own interest … and it also sends a message of weakness internationally.”

A balanced budget amendment is necessary because Congress has proven it cannot agree on how to keep total federal spending in line with total federal revenue. Moreover, the president is not even required to propose a budget to Congress each year that is balanced, so he rarely does. Even the members of Obama’s own bipartisan debt commission cannot reach consensus on the tough choices necessary to balance our budget. Clearly, we need a constitutional enforcement mechanism to impose fiscal discipline on Washington.

A balanced budget amendment is a good idea, but certainly not a new one. All but one of the 50 states already have some form of a balanced budget amendment in their state constitutions, and we can draw from the experience of the states in drafting an amendment appropriate for the federal government.

At the state level, balanced budgets are not only practical but popular. More than 70 percent of Floridians who voted Nov. 2 approved a nonbinding state ballot initiative that expressed support for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Amending our constitution is a tall order, but not an impossible goal. Americans have successfully amended our constitution more than two dozen times, and we have come close to doing so to add a balanced budget amendment before. In 1997, such an amendment received 66 votes in the Senate, only one vote short of the two-thirds supermajority requirement.

Last month, every Republican senator in the next Congress approved my resolution that a balanced budget amendment should be back on our agenda. But this need not be a partisan effort, as the 66 senators in 1997 included 11 Democrats. And that was when our deficit was only $107 billion, or just 1.4 percent of gross domestic product. Our deficits now measure in the trillions, and the urgency of a balanced budget amendment has increased with them. Republicans hope that many more Democrats will join us this time around, so we can successfully send a proposed amendment to the states for ratification.

If Congress fails to act, “we the people” still have options. This nation’s founders included the constitutional convention process in Article V to give the people the opportunity to propose amendments without congressional pre-approval. Previous movements to call conventions prompted Congress to approve the direct election of senators nearly a century ago, and major budget reforms in the 1980s. Today’s Congress may also require public pressure to do the right thing and approve a balanced budget amendment to our constitution.

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