Paul Starr, "State of the Union? Someday, Paralyzed" 1/24/95

State of the Union? Someday, Paralyzed

by Paul Starr

(Published in The New York Times, January 24, 1995)

When the Framers replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, they gave the government unqualified and unimpeded fiscal powers. Today, a new Republican majority in Congress proposes to overturn that decision. Speaker Newt Gingrich says he intends to reverse the growth of the federal government's role in society since 1932. The legacy he challenges, however, is not only that of Franklin Roosevelt but more fundamentally that of Alexander Hamilton.

As President Clinton delivers his State of the Union Message tonight, many Americans will wonder about the fate of particular programs and policies in the new Congress. But the larger question raised by the Republicans is the government's capacity to act, for they propose not just to shrink programs but to impose a permanent, constitutional straightjacket that is likely to paralyze the government in future crises.

The Constitution is a parsimonious document, unencumbered with detailed policy prescriptions. This restraint expressed confidence in representative government; it left the people's future representatives free to confront problems the founders knew they could not anticipate. As Hamilton explains in "The Federalist" (No. 30), it was imprudent to set any limit to the new government's taxing power because there was no clear limit to the demands that might be placed upon it. The Constitutional Convention deliberately rejected requirements for supermajorities. Impediments to revenue-raising had helped make the Articles of Confederation unworkable.

Today's Republican majority apparently believes it is more capable of making fiscal policy for future generations than were the Founding Fathers. It seeks to prescribe a balanced-budget amendment, to require a three-fifths supermajority for tax increases, and to prohibit the government from imposing regulations on the states except when it assumes 100 percent of the costs.

These measures are frankly intended to disable a government many Americans say they no longer trust. Yet those measures severely weaken the government's capacity to achieve any purpose. They hand weapons to minorities to obstruct majorities: a minority in either house would be able to impede preparations for national defense as well as spending on the poor.

If in pursuit of a balanced budget in 2002, we cut Medicare and social programs and provoke an inevitable reaction, it would be all the harder to find money for purposes conservative prefer, whether Star Wars defense systems, more prisons, or intensified border patrols.

The government's capacity to act is a resource as much for conservative as for liberal purposes. So those are planting a time bomb under the welfare state may see it explode in their own faces. Mr. Gingrich calls himself a revolutionary. This has happened to revolutionaries before.

The comeuppance could be much more serious for the nation than for any party. The dangers would likely be greatest in a future recession. If revenue fell along with private economic activity and three-fifths of Congress could not agree to run a deficit, the government would be forced to aggravate the downturn by cutting public expenditures as well—a recipe for turning recessions into depressions.

The Pentagon is committed to maintaining forces to fight two wars simultaneously, but a nation with weakened fiscal powers is much less capable of sustaining such commitments. Our enemies would understand this and act accordingly.

Some may dismiss these as empty worries. After all, the amendment, if passed in time, would not require a balanced budget until 2002. But seven years come soon enough. Concerns about the amendment are empty only if the amendment itself is empty of force.

The requirements for supermajorities are the most dangerous element in the Republicans' plan. But even if the final version of the amendment reduces voting requirements to an absolute majority of members of Congress—as many Democrats prefer—it would give undue constitutional force to the norm of budget balancing.

Denying the government the routine power to borrow is a surrender to the medieval view of debt that continues to shape popular attitudes. The introduction of credit cards almost three decades ago prompted overwhelming disapproval in public opinion surveys; meanwhile, Americans got the cards in droves.

There has never been a time—not even during the New Deal—when public opinion surveys failed to register overwhelming disapproval of government deficits. Yet Americans' disapproval of deficits ought to be taken as a mandate for constitutional prohibition about as seriously as their disapproval of credit cards is taken as grounds for outlawing their charge accounts. Credit cards have not doomed the economy, nor will federal deficits.

The problem of the deficit is its long-term rate of growth, which is due almost entirely to health care costs. There are no grounds for making a zero deficit a constitutionally required objective any more than denying private corporations or families the ability to borrow. Federal budget deficits of 1 or 2 percent of the GDP are entirely manageable. If the outstanding debt is inflation-adjusted annually, deficits of that scale typically do not amount to a real increase in the debt anyway.

Judge Robert Bork opposes the amendment as unworkable. So do other jurists, who think that if Congress used accounting gimmicks to portray an unbalanced budget as balanced, the courts would have no competence to enforce the amendment.

The original rationale for constitutional parsimony still stands. We will never know enough about the future to predict the tests that democratic government will face. More than two hundred years of American history should assure us that the Republic can not only survive without constitutionally imposed fiscal restriction; it has been better off without them.

If the Constitution had required a balanced budget, many members of Congress would not sit there today. For one thing, Thomas Jefferson could never have completed the Louisiana Purchase. (Interest expenses raised the cost from 3 cents to nearly 6 cents an acre, which presumably even our most ardent opponents of deficit spending will acknowledge was still a good deal.)

Hamilton's legacy of unimpeded fiscal power has been crucial to a system of government that has brought us through wars, depressions, and natural calamities to an unchallenged position as the strongest nation on earth.

During the Depression, World War II, and the cold war, there was a ready-made answer to questions about why needed a strong federal government. The crisis of government capacity has erupted today in part because there is no longer any shared sense of government's overriding mission. But depressions and wars have not been banished forever; rules we adopt now must be good when the world turns bad. Constitutionalizing fiscal policy is bad for the Constitution and bad for fiscal policy. It would make a mockery of one or a failure of the other, or both.

Copyright 1995 by Paul Starr Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all html codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Permission to photocopy and distribute this article in unbound form for classroom use is hereby granted.

Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "State of the Union? Someday, Paralyzed" The New York Times, January 24, 1995.