In the first 20 years that our Constitution was in existence, it was amended 12 times. In the 203 years since, it has been amended just 15 times. So the Constitution was amended nearly as often in its first two decades as in its past two centuries. Is this because we’ve now gotten everything right, or because we’ve simply stopped striving to get everything right?
No government, of course, can reach perfection, and seeking utopia on earth is a good way to bring about something closer to the opposite. But that doesn’t mean that the Constitutional Convention delegates weren’t trying to make the Constitution as perfect as they could. Striving to improve our governmental forms, even while recognizing that human society and humanity are not perfectible, is a virtue.
In that spirit, the Constitution’s amendment provision, Article V, was one of the seven original articles penned at Independence Hall. And in his farewell address, which fellow Convention delegates James Madison and Alexander Hamilton played an active role in writing, President George Washington reminded us of the role that we would be called to play. Washington declared to his “fellow-citizens” that “the free Constitution … is the work of your hands”; “may [it] be sacredly maintained.” He didn’t think our Constitution would maintain itself.
Moreover, Washington said:
If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates.
Indeed, our Founders provided twelve such corrections during Washington’s lifetime or within the first five years after his death.
In the present day, it is all well and good to hope that our congressional representatives will change their ways; that after continually increasing their spending since the passage of another amendment — the Sixteenth (1913), the income tax amendment, passed at the height of the Progressive era — they will soon stop spending like drunken sailors. But why leave it up to the limits of their wisdom or the strengths of their spines? The great powers of government are those of the purse and the sword, and ours needs to be reminded that the purse is not bottomless.
With the American people now realizing the dangers of unlimited spending to a perhaps unprecedented degree, the time is ripe — to use Madison’s formulation in Federalist 51 — to recognize “the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” In this spirit, there’s been much talk of a balanced-budget amendment. But such an approach would more likely lead to higher taxes than to limited government. Similarly, limiting taxes would invite higher deficits. We need to stop treating the symptom of increasing debt and go after the disease of spending.
By limiting government’s spending, we will limit government’s appetite to tax — as taxing is government’s means, not its ends. By limiting government’s spending, we will limit government’s ability to rack up deficits — as deficits are the product overspending. By limiting government’s spending, we will limit government’s ability to regulate, as regulation follows in spending’s wake — witness ObamaCare.
So, to regain control over our government and its reach, we must limit its spending. And to limit its spending over the long haul, we need a Limited Government Amendment.
I discuss the Limited Government Amendment in more detail in a longer piece over at National Affairs. But here it is, in a nutshell:
The amendment would limit the annual increase in federal spending to 2 percent (above inflation). It would grant an exception allowing for unlimited defense spending during a time of congressionally declared war. And it would allow three-quarters of the states (acting upon the request of two-thirds of Congress) to issue a 1-year exception for any reason whatsoever. In these ways, the amendment would constrain Congress, while leaving us with the flexibility to deal with what Hamilton called the full “extent and variety of national exigencies,” which no nation can foresee but which every nation must be prepared to address.
Would such an amendment really make that much of a difference? It would make a colossal difference.
Under very fair and reasonable assumptions — namely, that the inflation rate will continue at its average rate for the past quarter-century (nearly 3 percent) and that the non-inflation-adjusted annual rate of growth in federal spending will continue at its average rate for the past decade (nearly 8 percent) — the difference in government spending between 2011 and 2040, with the amendment versus without the amendment, would be astronomical. (If inflation turns out to be higher in years to come, this would cause both numbers to increase more or less equally, so the spread between them wouldn’t likely change much from the estimates provided here.)
Under these reasonable assumptions, total federal spending over the next three decades without the amendment would be a staggering $422 trillion. Total federal spending with the amendment (assuming no exceptions granted by the states or due to declared wars) could be, at most, $240 trillion. It would be less if Congress were to show any additional restraint. That’s a mind-boggling difference of at least $182 trillion — or at least $482,311 for every man, woman, or child that the Census Bureau projects will be living in the United States in 2040 (or $1.9 million for a family of four). That’s what average Americans stand to save from the passage of this amendment.
Unlimited government spending not only leads to debt. It leads to rampant cronyism and the politicization of our society — as government, under the pervasive influence of unscrupulous lobbyists, favors the well-connected and eschews the common good. That’s not liberty, and it’s not what the Founders had in mind.
To stop our downward spiral towards bankruptcy, and to reconnect ourselves with our Founding ideals of limited government, we need a Limited Government Amendment, to read as follows:
The Limited Government Amendment
Section 1: The annual rate of growth in total federal spending shall not exceed the rate of inflation, plus two percentage points, and neither budgeted nor actual spending shall exceed this limit, apart from the exceptions listed below. If no budget is passed, then the most recently passed budget, excluding any exceptions granted in Section 2, shall apply.
Section 2: Defense spending shall not be limited during a time of formally declared war, and further exceptions to the spending limits specified in Section 1 may be granted by the legislatures in three-quarters of the several states, upon the application of two-thirds of both houses of Congress, as they deem necessary; but any such exceptions shall not be included in determining spending limits for subsequent years.
Section 3: The spending limit for the first fiscal year following the cessation of hostilities in a declared war shall be the limit that was established for the fiscal year preceding the declaration of war, excluding any exceptions granted in that year, and adjusted for compounded inflation through all fiscal years completed in the interim.
Section 4: The rate of inflation used in determining spending limits shall be the rate from the most recently completed fiscal year prior to the passage of a given year’s budget, and the method of measuring inflation shall not be altered substantially from long-established norms. Spending that is not defense spending shall not be characterized as such; each exception granted by the states shall apply only to one fiscal year if not granted anew; and every citizen of the United States shall have standing to sue in federal court to enforce the language of this amendment.