The Hill's Congress Blog
Ending the federal spending spree
By: U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe
I remember receiving a call from then-U.S. Senator Carl Curtis of Nebraska. The year was 1971. He was in Washington advocating a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, but he knew that in order to make it happen there had to be a movement among state legislatures. Senator Curtis was asking for my help. So, as a state senator, I led the effort in Oklahoma to pre-ratify a Constitutional Amendment to require the federal government to balance its books.
Conservatives in Congress have been advocating a Balanced Budget Amendment to the United States Constitution for over 40 years now. In 1997, we came close in the Senate but failed by only one vote. At that time, the annual budget of the entire federal government was roughly $1.4 trillion. Recently, we learned that our budget deficit—the difference between what we take in and what we spend — for this year alone would be $100 billion more than that, or $1.5 trillion.
Think about that. After an astonishing increase in federal spending in the first two years of the Obama Presidency, our deficit is larger than the entire government in the late 1990’s. Clearly, our fiscal situation is worse than ever before. And we know what the problem is: it’s the spending. Between 2008 and today, for example, domestic discretionary spending has increased by 42 percent.
The result of this deficit spending is a devastating debt problem. President Obama’s budgets have set us on a path to double our national debt in five years and triple it in 10. We spend more on interest payments than we do on the entire budget for the Department of Agriculture. Our out-of-control debt now poses a national security threat. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said the debt threatens to weaken our influence around the world.
But we all know there’s a problem, and there is no shortage of scary statistics that illustrate its seriousness. There is, however, a shortage of solutions. In the absence of any real plan or leadership from the President or those of his party in Congress, let me offer two solutions that are good first steps to ending the federal spending spree.
First, we must finally pass and ratify a Balanced Budget Amendment. The Balanced Budget Amendment would require the President to submit a balanced budget to Congress each February; force Congress to appropriate a balanced budget annually; cap annual spending at 20 percent of the economy; and make any tax increase subject to a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. The amendment institutes common-sense budgetary principles that most state legislatures and families all across America adhere to.
While instituting these budgetary guidelines, the amendment does not unduly prevent Congress from being able to do what is necessary. Under normal circumstances, if two-thirds of Congress agrees, a waiver can be passed. In the event of military conflict, war, or imminent national security risk, a simple majority would also waive the restrictions.
Amending the Constitution is a long-term project, but that doesn’t prevent us from taking action right now to reduce spending. We could start by passing the Honest Expenditure Limitation Program (HELP) Act that I introduced last March and again in this Congress. The HELP Act caps non-security spending at their 2008 level and freezes them there for 10 years. By taking this step, we can save roughly $1 trillion over a 10 year period. President Obama’s proposal in the State of the Union Address to freeze spending at today’s bloated level ignores the seriousness of our problem.
Forcing Congress to remain fiscally responsible is essential. The HELP Act enforces the spending caps by requiring a two-thirds vote in the Senate and sequestration of funds that are higher than the freeze level.
We need a Balanced Budget Amendment to save our country from long-term ruin, and we need a reduction in current spending levels, like those instituted in the HELP Act, as a down payment. The longer we delay action, the worse our deficit and debt problems will get. We need leadership. We need action. And we need it now.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is consistently ranked the most conservative member of the Senate, most recently by National Journal.