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Fixing Thomas Jefferson's Debt Ceiling Regrets

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 to liberal political theorist and Virgina Senator John Taylor that he wished the constitution included strict debt limitations: “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing. I now deny their power of making paper money or anything else a legal tender. I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as ten wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion; besides that the State governments would be free to lend their credit in borrowing quotas.”

What Jefferson meant by a “single amendment” is a balanced budget amendment, which would require revenues to equal expenses. While I cannot argue with the sapience of TJ, I have an unfair advantage with my 235 years of hindsight.

Not only did Jefferson underestimate the ability of past generations to impart wisdom on the future, he could have not dreamed how the federal government would usurp so much authority that states would be reduced to, as President Ronald Reagan described, “mere administrative districts for the federal government.”

And such a budgetary limitation, in and of itself, could have not contained expenses of a growing nation.

For example, can you imagine President Abraham Lincoln, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus and much of the Bill of Rights during the endlessly bloody Civil War, making sure Congress kept a tidy, balanced budget?

As the 16th and 17th Amendments were ratified, in 1913, and progressivism became the political zeitgeist, Woodrow Wilson and FDR, on-top of fighting world wars, believed endless amounts of federal spending would bring our nation out of depression. In the process, they trampled on the Constitution by vastly expanded the authority of the federal government, ballooned the deficit, and created an entitlement class which has defined our political landscape ever since.

The late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who helped organize much of the conservative resurgence in the 1970s and provided Reagan with an incomparable political team, spent five terms standing firmly against government growth. And while he was no friend to special interests and lobbyists who never run out of new proposals to fund, Helms was explicit about his support for the tobacco subsidy, knowing that if he opposed it his time in Washington would come to a screeching halt.

As we witnessed last decade, under the leadership of Speaker Tom DeLay in the House, Republicans would speak the language of conservatism while gladly accepting earmarks for special projects “back home.” The earmark process today, while a small part of the overall budget, gives the clearest visual of how politicians are not only happy to squander your money, but how they use the system for their own re-election campaigns.

Conservatives, in the general sense, have a negative (and perhaps Hobbesian) view of human nature. We understand that man, as a fallen creature, cannot have prudence and self-reliance imposed upon him by a simple amendment. This was proven in 1933 when prohibition was repealed when it became obvious that no law would stop the consumption of alcohol. And, more recently, the Gramm-Rudman Act of 1985, a statutory mandate for balanced budgets, is only a passing thought as President Obama pushes the deficit far beyond $14.4 trillion.

A balanced budget amendment simply is not enough to put America on a corrective course. Instead, what is being proposed by Mike Lee of Utah and Jim DeMint of South Carolina, is a plan to gradually return the federal government to historical and reasonable spending levels.

The Cup, Cap, and Balance initiative does include Senator Lee’s proposed constitutional amendment for balanced budgets. But the key detail overlooked in media reports is how, learning from history, the amendment wisely avoids mandating tax increases to keep up with run-away spending, and instead requires a 2/3rds supermajority to pass a tax increase. With such a high threshold and without room for creative Washington accounting, Congress would either be forced to shrink government or go through the lengthy process of repealing a constitutional Amendment.

In addition, the proposal puts into law statuary caps in spending which bring a metaphorical sledgehammer to the federal government and will tie the hands of legislators to keep the budget on a path to make the balanced budget amendment requirements possible.

The Cut, Cap, and Balance proposal is not an easy fix or an Utopian scheme. It is about conservatives engaging today’s political process by demanding a seat at the table and producing the most conservative outcome possible. If conservatives can keep this momentum going, perhaps we will someday have the nation which Thomas Jefferson envisioned.

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