National Debt Clock

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reigning in Congress, Permanently

Three controls that the people have placed in state constitutions do not exist at the federal level. These are balanced budget amendments, line item vetoes, and single-subject requirements.

Balanced budget requirements (BBA) exist in some form in all fifty states. There must be an escape clause in these requirements or the restriction would prevent all curative steps in an economic emergency. The late economist Milton Friedman suggested that a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress should be required to override the BBA proposed for the federal Constitution [i].

If the federal government had already had such a BBA, none of the current or proposed emergency spending bills would have passed in their present form, with uncontrolled and unverifiable spending and trillion-dollar deficits for the next decade at least.

The second constitutional control common in the states but absent at the federal level is the line item veto. This exists in 43 states in various forms. When they work, they prevent legislatures from passing kitchen-sink legislation. The temptation to stuff bills is common at all levels of government. Some legislators try to attach special and unpopular spending provisions to a popular and must-pass bill to force a governor to accept the bad with the good. With a line-item veto, a governor can strike individual items from any bill.

If every president had the same line-item power that most governors have, each president would be responsible for any earmarks that remained in any bill [ii]. President Obama has decried special-interest earmarks, but he has not vetoed any bill over them. Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all sought line-item veto power. Congress passed a bill to create that power for President Clinton. Promptly after he used it, the Supreme Court struck it down, saying it must be established by amending the Constitution.

The third constitutional control common among the states but absent at the federal level is the single-subject requirement on all bills. This exists in 41 states in various forms. It's another protection against kitchen-sink legislation when the issue is policy, not money.

Under single-subject, legislators cannot attach provisions on such hot-button issues as taxes, regulation, abortion, gun control, or welfare to highly favored bills on entirely different subjects. At the federal level, disfavored clauses are often added to bills with the intention of forcing adoption of the disfavored clause, or to create a poison pill to kill the overall bill.

All three of these provisions work more effectively if there is a tightly written constitutional control and a tendency of the highest courts in that jurisdiction to enforce them.

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