Congress can't restrain itself

The supercommittee's apparently fruitless meetings often took place in this underground room in the Capitol.
The supercommittee's apparently fruitless meetings often took place in this underground room in the Capitol. (J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/ Associated Press)
Posted: November 22, 2011

By Colin A. Hanna

The expected failure of the congressional "supercommittee" to present a credible plan to reduce spending shows once again that Congress simply cannot restrain itself. Over the past 50 years, the federal budget has been balanced (or had a surplus) only five times. In other words, Congress has shown that it can't balance the federal budget 90 percent of the time.

A strong balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is the only practical solution to this chronic problem. Survey after survey shows that American voters think Congress should be required to balance the federal budget just as they must balance theirs.

Unfortunately, though, a weak balanced-budget amendment failed to achieve the two-thirds support required in a House vote last week. The measure went down 265-165, with four Republicans opposed and 25 Democrats in favor. And even if the bill had gotten the required 290 votes, it was unlikely to get the 67 votes needed in the Senate.

President Obama opposes a balanced-budget amendment, and he comes by that opposition honestly. In his first three years in office, he hasn't even conceived a plan to balance a budget or achieve fiscal responsibility. And he has overseen massive government growth, increased domestic spending, presided over the three largest annual deficits in American history, and added more than $4 trillion to the nation's debt. Are we better off now than we were $4 trillion ago? Obama no doubt hopes his early pledge to halve the deficit by the end of his first term will be forgotten as that term nears its end.

If the supercommittee's failure to present a deficit-reduction plan triggers large automatic budget cuts, those cuts can still be undone by a new Congress. If Republicans attain majorities in both the House and Senate next fall, the defense portion of the automatic cuts would likely be at least partly restored.

Our entitlement programs, meanwhile, have $59 trillion or more in unfunded liabilities. And congressional Democrats maintain that nothing should be done to reform them.

Yet the debt keeps growing like a snowball rolling down a steep hill. Why isn't anyone doing anything to stop it?

Congressional Democrats and a few establishment Republicans are fundamentally unserious about the debt. Either they do not understand how grave our approaching insolvency is, or they do understand but are choosing to do nothing in the selfish interest of retaining political power.

We now stand at a debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio of about 1-to-1, approaching dangerous European levels of overborrowing. When your debt reaches a level you can't service, you go bankrupt. And we are headed in that direction.

Greece is being bailed out. Italy may be next. But no one is big enough to bail out the United States.

So how do we work our way back to solvency?

First, do no harm: Balancing the budget would not erase the debt, but it would keep the snowball from getting bigger.

Next, follow the example of the 49 states that have some type of balanced-budget requirement. Do Democrats from those states oppose their balanced-budget requirements?

Republicans can frame the 2012 campaign in terms of tough but realistic solutions to the debt and jobs crises. Democrats are likely to pretend that more government spending is all we need to restore the economy - that we don't really need to consider more painful measures - while stoking fears that Republicans will gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

In a typical year, the latter strategy might prevail. But a majority of Americans now sense that the snowball is gaining speed, growing every day, and headed for their neighborhood. And it started on Capitol Hill.

Colin A. Hanna is president of Let Freedom Ring, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

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