Watts: Indiana ‘Fivers’ for a Balanced Budget

April 16, 2014

“On a state level, I think it’s important that we find candidates and elect them who would be willing to call for a Convention of States, if need be. Because that is the tool the people have to rein in government.” — Sarah Palin, April 14, 2014

by Tyler Watts, Ph.D.

The Indianapolis Star last week published the endorsement of a conservative intellectual, George Will, for a state-initiated Article V Convention for proposing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He dubbed its proponents “Fivers.”

The need for fiscal discipline in Congress has never been clearer. Indeed, opinion poll after opinion poll reveals that the deficit remains a priority political issue for a majority of the public. Large majorities — upwards of 70 percent — consistently favor a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The exploding federal debt places a burden on our economy that, if not checked soon, will generate an economic crisis of epic proportions (think Greece 2009 times 10). While the web site usdebtclock.org has the national debt at $17.6 trillion, a Boston University economist, Laurence Kotlikoff, argues that the present value of the U.S. government’s unfunded liabilities amounts to a staggering $222 trillion. And former Comptroller General David Walker has sounded the alarm about the damage these deficits and debt are already wreaking on the economy.

Though politicians constantly invoke concern for “our children and grandchildren,” they should not be expected to restrain their own spending. Public Choice economics tells us that politicians, rather than embracing a high-minded dedication to the public good, mainly pursue their own self-interests, as we all do.

The main object of a politician’s self-interest, though, can be summarized in a word — “reelection.” To win the required votes and raise the necessary campaign funds, he/she engages in “spending other people’s money on other people,” to quote Milton Friedman — that is, in appeasing key constituencies by lavishing them with rich contracts or entitlements financed largely by deficit spending.

Eliminating the resulting deficit will require cuts to the largest, most popular federal-spending categories: the military, Social Security and Medicare. The average congressman, despite tough-sounding rhetoric, believes that voting for real cuts in any of these programs would be political suicide.

The public’s all-time low trust in Congress is telling on this point: Americans realize that Congress will not get its act together with regard to fiscal responsibility. And Public Choice economics is convincing in its argument that they cannot do so because of the inherently perverse incentive structure of a large, democratic, deficit-enabled political process.

All of that said, what should we the people do to avert the coming fiscal catastrophe and bolster current economic growth?

Fortunately, our Founding Fathers, with uncanny foresight, left us a safety valve in Article V of the Constitution. Facing a recalcitrant, undisciplined Congress, the states themselves, by a vote of two-thirds of the legislatures, can call a convention for proposing amendments.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long is at the vanguard of this movement. Last year, Senator Long initiated a meeting of like-minded state legislators from 32 states, known as the Mount Vernon Assembly. It laid the groundwork for a state convention for proposing amendments.

Yet, some wise and cautious citizens are concerned about the prospect of a “runaway” convention making drastic changes to our fundamental law. The Indiana organizers take these concerns seriously. They have drafted legislation that would give our General Assembly strict control over any delegates it would send to such a convention. Moreover, such an Article V convention can, should and almost certainly would be limited to one issue. A prime candidate would be a federal balanced-budget amendment as suggested by George Will, et al.

Those who understand the perverse, debt-oriented incentives of the Congress, and likewise the delicate checks and balances built into our federalist system, realize that a state-initiated Article V convention for proposing amendments is possibly the best chance we have to restrain federal spending and prevent a fiscal crisis.

From one “fiver” to another, then, I applaud Mr. Will for adding his respected voice to this cause.

Tyler Watts, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches economics at Ball State University.



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