NTU to MD Lawmakers: Defend Balanced Budget Amendment

An Open Letter to the Maryland General Assembly:
Uphold Your Constitutional Prerogatives; Oppose HJR 2 and SJR 2!

Dear Legislator:

On behalf of National Taxpayers Union’s (NTU’s) members across Maryland and America, I urge you NOT to rescind your state’s longstanding U.S. Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) Application, and instead vote AGAINST HJR 2 and SJR 2.

In 1975, Maryland Democratic State Senator James Clark, Jr. helped lead the modern movement among states to pressure the U.S. Congress on behalf of a federal constitutional amendment limiting budget deficits in Washington, DC. He shepherded the first state resolution under Article V calling on Congress to either pass such an amendment for ratification, or announce a convention of the states for the purpose of doing so. NTU’s hundreds of thousands of members across the country joined with our Maryland supporters in welcoming Senator Clark’s leadership as Chair of our Balance the Budget Committee. Along with George Snyder, another Democratic Member of the Maryland Senate who later became NTU’s President, Jim Clark worked tirelessly to communicate the principle that fiscal responsibility is a bipartisan issue. Dozens of states followed suit.

More than 40 years later, you are being asked to turn your backs on this rich heritage that had inspired, and is now reinspiring, leaders in both parties to craft rules that will restore reasonable safeguards against reckless federal borrowing. Withdrawing your BBA application now would amount to a unilateral surrender of your right to guide Washington back to a saner course – one that can protect the budgetary priorities of both Democrats and Republicans from ruin.

A Balanced Budget Amendment would enshrine in our Constitution a maxim that our Founders simply assumed and abided by: the federal government should not spend more than it takes in, absent a clear emergency or threat that necessitated doing so. With appropriate exceptions – e.g., a 3/5 or 2/3 vote in Congress to authorize a specific deficit – a BBA is up to the task of ensuring that this principle is upheld. Unfortunately, decades of financial mismanagement have proven that Congress as an institution is no longer capable of restraining itself, and that durable constitutional safeguards must have a role in limiting government. Washington has run deficits during 45 of the last 50 years. The current Congress recently adopted a Budget Resolution that envisions an increase in the public debt of nearly $10 trillion.

Given this abysmal history, it becomes clear any solution to our spending crisis must come from outside Washington, D.C. Thankfully, the Constitution allows state lawmakers to exercise certain powers to prevent a catastrophe from federal excesses. As we wrote in “Why You Must Lead the Congress” three decades ago:

The Founding Fathers had no way of predicting the current irresponsible spending policies of the federal government. Yet although they could not foretell the future, they were people of great wisdom. They did foresee the possibility that Congress might fail the people. It is for such a contingency that Article V of the U.S. Constitution enables the states to amend the Constitution.

Recently you have received a great deal of misinformation about the Balanced Budget Amendment and the limited convention process from organizations that mistrust both your wisdom and that of the Founders. Yet, we urge you to consider a warning from our late Chairman, David Stanley. Twenty years ago Mr. Stanley, who served as a leader in the Iowa State Senate, authored a document entitled “How to Restore Fiscal Sanity: State Legislatures Hold the Key,” in which he wrote:

You would be suspicious of anyone who claims to support law enforcement but wants to abolish the police. You should be equally skeptical of anyone who claims to be for a Balanced Budget Amendment but against a limited convention to propose it. …

The best way to ensure the survival of our Constitution and its guarantees of liberties is for the States to use the Constitution as the Founders intended – to pass enough Article V resolutions to force Congress to act. … Unless we have the courage to use the tools the Founders in their wisdom gave us, our nation will become a laughingstock and bury our children under a mountain of debt.

Furthermore, the scholarship on behalf of Article V’s relevance and utility has grown tremendously. Professor Robert Natelson, for example, has conducted painstaking research to show that the Founders certainly did not construct Article V as an afterthought or an accident. From its conception, the provision was intended to be vigorously applied toward remedies for federal overreach. Nick Dranias of the Compact for America Educational Foundation has, through an ongoing series of works, cogently demonstrated that Article V is a fundamental element in our constitutional system of checks and balances, one whose exercise is necessary, safe, and historically grounded.

At issue before you now is not just the matter of a Balanced Budget Amendment, but the Article V amendment process itself. Constitutional controls on borrowing actually have a strong bipartisan pedigree, but it is also important to remember that the Article V Convention of the States process has attracted interest from Americans on many points of the political spectrum. In 2014 Harvard University Professor Lawrence Lessig wrote the following in a letter to your fellow lawmakers in the Commonwealth of Virginia:

It is my view that an Article V convention presents no threat to any constitutional values supported by any substantial minority in America today. … I believe an Article V convention is a critical alternative given to us by the Framers of our Constitution to address precisely the problem that we now face: A federal government that has lost the ability to function. Whether that’s because of the corrupting influence of money in politics, or because of the exaggerated role the federal government now plays in the affairs of the states doesn’t matter at this point. What’s clear is that an institution that has less than 10% public confidence needs to be reformed and that reform will not come from the inside.

Many years prior to Professor Lessig’s words, Ronald Reagan dismissed the scare tactics of the far right, which contended that a “convention would open the door to all manner of proposed amendments.” He said, “In my view those who warn of this show little faith in our democratic procedures. The Constitution provides for both methods and the convention is a safety valve giving the people a chance to act if Congress refuses to.”

But for lawmakers who hold that real issue here remains the Balanced Budget Amendment itself, NTU and its supporters on both sides of the aisle would remind you of the following sad facts. We were told that the cure for federal profligacy lies in “electing the right leaders,” all while numerous Presidents and Congresses abused the nation’s good credit. We were told that statutory measures would bring outlays under control, even as laws such as the Gramm-Rudman Hollings Act were trampled underfoot. We were told that elected officials need only “follow the Constitution,” and there would be no justification to amend the nation’s foundational document.

Today, the entire republic that our Constitution undergirds and guarantees is threatened with extinction due to unsustainable federal policies. We were told that limits on taxes and spending were too trivial for the Constitution, a notion that seems quaint today as our gross federal debt hovers at an ominous level of 100 percent of the nation’s economic output. Ailing entitlement programs, whose dire condition has been known for at least 25 years now, threaten to collapse and leave our most vulnerable citizens without economic security.

As the centrist Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget noted last year, conditions such as these have dramatically reduced the “fiscal space” available to the federal government in responding to the next economic emergency. This stark reality should, on its own, be very troubling to all of Maryland’s elected officials.

Those of you serving today who were fortunate to have known Senator Jim Clark might remember his deep belief in the civil rights of all Marylanders. He also ardently described himself as an environmentalist, while he fought for stewardship of the state’s open spaces and sustainable agriculture. I would urge you to also recall his passionate commitment to stewardship over the nation’s finances, so that generations to come would have the rights to pursue their dreams and their visions of social justice. When you do so, I am confident you will come to one decision: honoring Senator Clark’s legacy, and retaining your rights as state legislators to help shape Washington’s future course, means voting NO on HJR 2 and SJR 2.

Pete Sepp