Congress is expected to consider a balanced-budget amendment soon. Former Washington Gov. Daniel J. Evans, who worked to defeat such an amendment when he served in the U.S. Senate in the 1980s, argues why it remains a bad idea now.
LATER this week, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to begin debate on a balanced-budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Similar proposals have been voted down, sometimes narrowly, many times in the past 30 years. It is a bad idea and Congress should reject it again.
When our founders drafted our Constitution, they produced a simple and elegant document setting forth only the structure of government and the basic rights of its citizens. Amendments consistently expanded opportunity for all of us. The Bill of Rights sings to us our freedoms. We ended slavery, expanded voting rights to all races, women and 18-year-olds.
Only once did we seek to control social behavior through Prohibition, but promptly repealed that aberration. There were no artificial term limits, no social engineering, no balanced-budget crutch. They knew well that the flesh and blood of governing a free society came not from artificial constitutional restraints, but from the vigilance and participation of citizens.
In recent years we have faced attempts to amend the Constitution to allow prayer in schools, establish political office term limits, ban burning the American flag, and to prohibit abortion. But our Constitution is strong because it is amended rarely and then to expand freedoms, not restrict them.
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Children can and do pray privately and independently to their own deity. As a voter, I am outraged by those sanctimonious term-limiters who would steal from me the freedom of my vote. What’s wrong with trusting voters to make appropriate decisions? The flag-burning amendment is a solution in search of a problem. Our danger lies not in the burning of our flag but when the time comes that thousands cheer its burning. It’s far better to spend our efforts building a strong and compassionate nation where there is little need or desire to burn the American flag.
The question of abortion rights may deeply divide our nation, but I’ve never heard anyone say that they like abortion. It is the ultimate and painful choice of those who face irreconcilable conflict. It is far better for us to join as a people to strengthen families, teach our children about sex and love, and open opportunities for adoption. Those actions will do far more to end abortion than the hate and violence of political conflict.
Now we again face a balanced-budget amendment. It is an impractical idea that is meaningless until we decide how to keep a national standard set of books in order to even measure balance. The federal government has more than 150 separate accounting systems and no capital budget. Washington state government, most businesses and many individual families would show an unbalanced budget if they kept books like the federal government. A distinguished economist 30 years ago calculated that General Motors, which that year had earned more than $16 a share, would show a loss of $4 a share if its books conformed to U.S. government accounting.
As a family, if you buy a new home you do not expect the total cost of a home to be charged against your income for that year. But that’s precisely what the federal government does with its capital expenditures. Most current proposals would require a three-fifths vote of Congress to increase revenues or to run a deficit, but the Constitution still requires only a majority vote to send our young to war.
The fuzziness of this constitutional proposal would create involved legal challenges requiring Supreme Court intervention for years to come. Congress may have difficulty in balancing our budget but turning over responsibility to the Supreme Court could be disastrous.
We do not need a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, but we do need members of Congress with common sense and the courage to cut expenditures where appropriate, raise taxes where necessary, and eliminate waste and foolishness in government.
Daniel J. Evans of Seattle represented Washington state in the U.S. Senate from 1983 to 1989. He served as governor from 1965 to 1977.