Principles for Drafting a Balanced Budget Amendment
The Article V Handbook, which I authored for the American Legislative Exchange Council, emphasizes that citizens pressing for constitutional amendments should avoid fringe or unpopular proposals. The Handbook distills four guiding principles for selecting amendments worthy of support:
(1) An amendment should move America back toward Founding principles.
(2) The amendment should enact substantial, rather than merely symbolic or marginal, reform.
(3) The amendment should enjoy supermajority support among the public. There must be room for slippage once opponents begin to attack the proposal.
(4) It should address a subject that state lawmakers of both political parties can understand and appreciate.
“As of this writing,” the Handbook adds, “a balanced budget amendment probably meets all four criteria; an amendment to abolish the income tax probably does not.”
Measured by subsequent success, those four principles have been vindicated. Since the Handbook was published in 2011, seven states have adopted BBA applications -- far more than on any other topic. No legislature has adopted an amendment to repeal the income tax.
By my count, there are now 21 valid, aggregable BBA applications outstanding. The 2014 elections created a favorable political environment in the states, so the number may approach the required 34 by the end of next year. However, as BBA activists have long understood, drafting a politically and practically viable balanced budget amendment presents a considerable challenge. One reason lies in the nature of the amendment: establishing rules for budgeting is complicated. But there are other difficulties as well.
The amendment has to have teeth without threatening effective government. The balanced budget rule must take effect without unnecessary delay, but not so fast as to be overly disruptive. It should permit deficit spending in emergencies, but the emergency clause must not be easily manipulable. It must be enforceable without ceding the budget process to the courts. The amendment must be comprehensive enough to do the job, but not overly detailed.
Fortunately, history offers us some valuable drafting lessons. The relevant history includes experience both with state fiscal restraints and with prior U.S. constitutional amendments. Very instructive is the history of the 14th amendment, a critical and necessary measure that almost failed of ratification because of poor authorship.
Here are some drafting suggestions. This list is not exhaustive:
* Keep it short. Americans treasure their Constitution’s brevity, and will be suspicious of an amendment that looks like an economics treatise. Also, the longer a proposal, the more there is for opponents to pick apart. Tax and expenditure limitations in some state constitutions are far too long to suit the U.S. Constitution. At about 425 words, the 14th amendment proved too detailed, and offered opponents much fodder for attack.
* Make the substance fit. An amendment’s substance should blend with the “spirit” of the rest of the Constitution. For example, the federal government is wholly representative in nature, so requiring national popular referenda would be a major, and probably unacceptable, departure.
* Make the language fit. The amendment’s language should be consistent with the rest of the Constitution. If the draft employs words appearing elsewhere in the document, make sure the usages are consistent. Endless disputes have arisen over the 14th amendment’s phrases “privileges or immunities” and “due process of law,” because it is unclear whether the critical words in those phrases mean the same as in other parts of the Constitution.
* As a corollary: Avoid modern technical phrases such as “gross domestic product” or “discretionary spending.” Technical terms engender popular suspicion because everyone knows they can be manipulated. Moreover, as time passes the meaning of technical terms can be forgotten. For several years now, I’ve made a living explaining the Constitution’s many technical phrases to Americans who had forgotten what they were supposed to communicate. That should not have been necessary.
* Don’t overreach. Drafting an overly-strict amendment is one kind of overreach. Another kind of overreach is adding bells and whistles to win the support of particular groups. To be politically acceptable, a BBA should be “clean.” It should feature neither exemptions for entitlements (favored by liberals) nor anti-tax add-ons (favored by conservatives). Bells and whistles create the perception of favoritism and probably will not convince BBA skeptics anyway.
* Avoid numbers and formulae. They create public suspicion and people find them hard to understand. (Most people find the formula in Section 2 of the 14th amendment, for example, to be inscrutable.) Formulae and numbers also are manipulable: Experience with state tax and expenditure limitations shows that a 5% annual “ceiling” often becomes a 5% annual floor.
* Don’t concede the constitutionality of the welfare state. Proposals that assume the validity of existing programs may prejudice future litigation over the validity of those programs. Current spending practices also are inconsistent with the founding-era principle of limited government. Any such a concession will provoke opposition among the fiscally-conservative activists necessary to ensure ratification.
* Favor procedure over substance. Some of the Constitution’s most effective provisions create checks and balances rather than merely mandating “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” Instead of defining the “emergency” that justifies a deficit, the amendment should include a special procedure for authorizing it.
* Be very careful with legislative supermajority requirements. Because of how group dynamics work, an excessive supermajority requirement in an assembly the size of the House of Representatives may actually increase deficits. Drafters should consult existing social science research on this topic, or rely on other mechanisms instead.
Readers with additional suggestions should email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Natelson’s constitutional research has been cited repeatedly in and by the U.S. Supreme Court. A law professor for 25 years, he is now Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute, and author of The Original Constitution: What It Actually Said and Meant (3d ed. 2014).