By Senators Olympia Snowe and Jim DeMint
Whatever happens when President Obama meets with congressional leaders of both parties at the White House today, no long-term solution is on the table for the spending habits in Washington that have endangered the prosperity of future generations. With our federal debt exceeding $14 trillion—nearly 100% of our gross domestic product—fiscal calamity is jeopardizing our standard of living and undermining our national security. And President Obama recently requested that we add an additional $2.4 trillion to our debt.
There has to be another way, and there is. Republicans in the Senate are united in our concern about our nation's fiscal future. Before we consider saddling our children with even more debt, we must enact significant spending cuts and enforceable caps on future spending. For the long term, to prevent both this Congress and its successors from hijacking the promise of American prosperity, we also need a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, like the one we and all 47 Senate Republicans have introduced.
The American people who will vote on such an amendment understand the basic financial rules that Washington has been breaking. In the real world, if a household brought in $44,000 annually but spent $74,000 by borrowing $30,000 each year to sustain its spending habits, such behavior would be considered reckless and irresponsible.
Nonetheless, the federal government is doing exactly that on an unimaginable scale, running historic deficits in excess of a trillion dollars for three consecutive years and borrowing 40 cents for every dollar spent. Our government has balanced its budget only five times in half a century.
The U.S. currently spends an astounding $200 billion per year just to pay interest on its debt, an annual amount projected to reach nearly $1 trillion by 2021. Money spent on debt-interest payments is money not invested in our economy, jobs, infrastructure or education. Economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have found that gross debt levels above 90% of GDP slow economic growth by 1% per year. First-quarter GDP growth this year was already abysmal at 1.9%. At that rate, China would surpass the U.S. economy in size even before 2016, the year recently forecast by the International Monetary Fund.
If Congress increases our national debt ceiling next month without permanent, structural budget reforms, we will signal to taxpayers and bond markets alike that Washington is still in denial. Whatever agreement is reached, everyone will know that future Congresses are not obligated to follow it. As a result, the only way to compel lawmakers to maintain their responsibility forever is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Why will this approach work where others have failed? For one single reason: As senators and representatives, we take an oath to uphold the Constitution. By amending the Constitution, Congress will be forever bound to match our nation's expenditures with our revenues. Toothless resolutions and statutory speed bumps have proven easy to evade or ignore. Indeed, the reason many lawmakers don't want a balanced budget amendment is the exact reason why we need it: It would permanently end the types of legislative trickery that have now brought our country to the fiscal brink.
The last time the Senate considered a balanced budget amendment was on March 4, 1997—and it failed to pass by one vote. On that day 14 years ago, the nation's outstanding debt was $5.36 trillion. Today it is $14.3 trillion, or nearly three times that amount.
In the Constitution, our forefathers established a brilliant blueprint that has withstood the test of time and become a beacon for others to follow. What the Founders did not anticipate was that a nation built upon the premise of individual freedom would become shackled by a government of chronic debtors.
A constitutional amendment to balance the budget is imperative if we are to provide continuity of fiscal responsibility, and ensure we never return to the recklessness of the past and present. It's time Congress passed the amendment and gave the states—and "We the People"—their say.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on July 7, 2011.