Let's assume that each of our 535 congressmen cares about the destructive impact of deficits and debt on the future of our country. Regardless of party, congressmen face enormous lobbying pressures and awards to spend more and little or no pressure and awards to spend less. The nation's founders would be horrified by today's congressional spending that consumes 25 percent of our GDP. Contrast that to the years 1787 to the 1920s when federal government spending never exceeded 4 percent of our GDP except in wartime. Today, federal, state and local government consumes 43 percent of what Americans produce each year. The Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation computes that the average taxpayer is forced to work from Jan. 1 to mid-April to pay federal, state and local taxes. If he were taxed enough to pay the $1.5 trillion federal deficit, he'd be forced to work until mid-May.
Tax revenue is not the problem. The federal government has collected just about 20 percent of the nation's GDP almost every year since 1960. Federal spending has exceeded revenue for most of that period and has taken an unprecedented leap since 2008 to produce today's massive deficit. Since federal spending is the problem, that's where our focus should be.
Cutting spending is politically challenging. Every spending constituency sees its handout as vital, whether it's Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid recipients or farmers, poor people, educators or the military. It's easy for congressmen to say yes to these spending constituencies because whether it's Democrats or Republicans in control, they face no hard and fast bottom line.
The bottom line that Americans need is a constitutional amendment limiting congressional spending to some fraction, say 20 percent, of the GDP. That limit could be exceeded only if the president declared a state of emergency along with a two-thirds vote of approval in both houses of Congress. Each year of a declared state of emergency would require another two-thirds vote in each house.
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.