By U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe
With our gross federal debt exceeding $14 trillion and projected to reach 100 percent of our gross domestic product by the end of 2011, the most significant task for the 112th Congress is to rein in the burgeoning deficits and return the federal budget to fiscal sanity.
First, Congress must consider which cuts are necessary to bring spending in line with revenues — the projected gap for 2011 is around $1.5 trillion. We cannot and must not finance operating expenses with perpetual deficits. If Americans spent two-thirds more than what they made each year, we would call such behavior reckless. It is time that we call it like it is: reckless spending by the government that has disregarded procedural restraints while jeopardizing our children's future.
Second, Congress must institute mechanisms such as a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution to force the government to do what its citizens already do — live within its means. As a veteran of repeated balanced budget amendment debates through the decades, I find it unconscionable that Americans have seen their government balance the budget only five times in a half of a century. In corporate America and our schools, a one-in-ten success ratio is considered a failure. And when there is failure, self-assessment and tough choices are necessary.
I joined with Senators Orrin Hatch and John Cornyn in introducing a balanced-budget amendment for two reasons: to force the government to do what it has proved incapable of doing — bring its expenditures in line with revenues — and to send a signal to Americans and financial markets that this legislative body understands the root cause of our burgeoning debt and stands ready to address it. The balanced budget amendment is meant to work in conjunction with and not in lieu of spending cuts. As such, it would take effect in four to six years — enough time for Congress to consider and implement reductions that would narrow the gap.
Dating back to my tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have argued time and again that we cannot countenance deficits in perpetuity, and that deficits do matter. My 1995 statement on the Senate floor that "the federal government should be balancing its revenues with its expenditures because ultimately that debt is being passed on to future generations" rings even more true today when our national debt is almost three times higher. To put things in perspective: twenty years ago, our gross national debt was almost $500 billion less than our combined deficits for 2009, 2010 and 2011, as projected.
The 1985 and 1987 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings anti-deficit legislation, the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act that brought us spending caps and Pay-Go, and the 1997 Balanced Budget Act created procedural mechanisms that paved the way for four years of surpluses beginning in 1998. In 2001, the last year of surpluses, I proposed a legislative trigger that would serve as a safety mechanism and link long-term federal budget surplus reductions with actual budgetary outcomes. I also co-sponsored legislation to implement triggers that would have preserved and protected the surpluses. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, ignored both proposals and allowed the statutory restraints from the 1980s and 1990s to lapse or be bypassed. Last year, Congress failed to adopt the budget or pass any of the 13 appropriation bills for the first time since the landmark Budget Act of 1974.
So we find ourselves with a legislative body that is inherently unable to impose fiscal self-restraint, no legislative tools or instruments in place to rein in expenditures, and a burgeoning debt that is threatening to destroy our future. That is the new reality to which we must adjust and do so quickly.
Our mounting deficits already jeopardize our standard of life and national security. With one-third of our debt foreign-owned, it is no surprise that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, views the national debt as the single biggest threat to our national security, an opinion shared by a majority of Americans in a 2010 Gallup Poll that tied federal debt with terrorism as the greatest danger to our future.
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 is that a nation built upon the premise of individual freedom would become a nation of debtors. The constitutional amendment to balance the budget is a necessary step to return us on the path to fiscal sustainability.