The ‘Spending Limit Amendment’

Regardless of whether many in the media or in the Democratic Party are willing to admit it, yesterday’s stand by Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning–who had the audacity to insist that the U.S. Senate abide by its own pay-as-you-go rules and offset new spending with spending cuts elsewhere–likely struck a chord with an American public sick to death of a federal government which seems to become more and more spendthrift with each and every passing day, week, month and administration.

Spending is certainly out of control, and lawmakers seem addicted to spending money the nation simply does not have.  And frankly, it’s neither a Republican thing or a Democrat thing — it’s a Washington thing.  And it needs to stop.

Offering a real solution today in a Wall Street Journal op-ed are Indiana Congressman Mike Pence and Texas Congressman Jeb Hensarling, both Republicans.  Their idea? Amending the United States Constitution to ensure that the federal government remains limited in size, scope and role, just as our founders intended.  From the piece:

Fiscal storm clouds are upon us. In five years, federal spending has skyrocketed to 24.7% from 19.9% of our economy. That’s the highest level since World War II. Borrowing has ballooned the national debt to $11.9 trillion from $7.3 trillion, a five-year increase equal to the accumulation of debt between President George Washington and President Bill Clinton.

Unfortunately, the long-term fiscal picture is worse. As the Baby Boom generation retires and the cost of health care continues to escalate, entitlement programs will cause federal spending to rise to 40% of our economy, double its post-World War II average. This is assuming that spending does not increase even further, an assumption that the trillion-dollar “stimulus” bill and the 84% increase in nondefense discretionary spending President Obama signed into law argues against.

The situation is dire, but don’t take our word for it. “U.S. fiscal policy is on an unsustainable path to an extent that cannot be solved by minor tinkering,” Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf said recently. Former Comptroller General David Walker called the rising costs of government entitlements a “fiscal cancer” that threaten “catastrophic consequences for our country.”

A good description of the problem and realistic assessment of just how troubling our situation is, for sure. As we’ve seen throughout the health care and cap-and-trade debates, however, House Republicans are not simply content with pointing out problems. Pence and Hensarling–the latter of whom the president continuously addressed as “Jim” throughout his meeting with Republicans in January–continue by acknowledging that finding a solution will not be easy.

On the possibility of taxing our way out of our troubles, the pair acknowledge that taxes would have to double in order to pay for what we are currently on track to spend, and that increasing taxes in such a manner would “crush our economy” and “condemn future generations to a far lower standard of living.”  Pence and Hensarling say that doing so is not an option, but I caution that in creating his new “debt commission,” President Obama is merely putting the infrastructure in place so as to sufficiently insulate himself, politically, from what undoubtedly will be recommended tax hikes.

On the possibility that we can maintain our current spendthrift ways and grow our way out of trouble, Pence and Hensarling again bring bad news.  “Although pro-growth policies like simplifying the tax code and lowering rates are critical components of any solution, they alone are insufficient,” they write, noting that it would require record, double-digit growth each and every year for the next three-quarters of a century in order to even have sight of break-even.

As for borrowing our way out of trouble, doing so would “drive up interest rates to unimaginable levels,” the two congressmen write, “crowding out borrowing opportunities for families and businesses.” This, of course, was the same argument made by Pence at this time last year when, as chairman of the House GOP conference, he engineered cohesion among Republicans and a united front against the Democratic Party majority’s agenda — a Herculean task which could very well have been the spark that caused the conflagration known as the next Republican revolution.

The solution, Pence and Hensarling wrote, is to “do the right thing.”

That is why we are proposing a Spending Limit Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment would limit spending to one-fifth of the economy (our historical spending average since World War II). The limit could only be waived by a declaration of war or by a two-thirds congressional vote.

As with other constitutional amendments, Congress would be given the authority to enforce and implement it. But for the first time, the federal government would have a limit on its size and scope. The Spending Limit Amendment does not promise a particular spending plan about what programs to restrain and by how much. Rather, it puts a legal constraint on lawmakers present and future.

Some will say it should not be done now. But if not now, when?

It’s certainly a bold idea. Amending the Constitution is not an easy task, and indeed was designed intentionally to be difficult. Article V provides three different ways by which an amendment can be ratified:

  • Any new amendment must be approved by two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and Senate, and subsequently sent to the states for approval.
  • Two-thirds of the legislatures of the several states can apply to Congress for a constitutional convention to consider amendments, which are then sent to the states for approval.
  • Congress can require ratification by special convention.

The latter option, ratification by special convention, was used only once — to repeal prohibition.  The second option, ratification via constitutional convention, certain could benefit from a grassroots movement afoot recently pushing for a new constitutional convention, but that process could open up a whole new can of worms and end up doing more harm to our republic than good.  That leaves the first option; obviously, given the current political climate, two-thirds of both houses of Congress seems darned near impossible.

It doesn’t hurt to bring up the option, though, politically or otherwise.  Politically, we’re talking about a renewed spirit of fiscal conservatism which has taken hold of the American people.  The people know that a limit must be put into place — they do it in their own lives, just in order to survive until the next month, or next paycheck.  Proposing the amendment would put the Democrats in the position of refusing to sign off on fiscal sanity at a time when fiscal sanity is at the top of most Americans’ priority list.

In terms of the overall health of the nation, a spending limit amendment is an excellent idea.  Our framers did not know what this experiment would become; they only knew what would doom it, and they put in every conceivable protection to defend against such destruction.  This idea is consistent with a foundational framework which always erred on the side of limited federal power, and it would go a long way to putting on on the path to true, lasting recovery.

The Democrats like to decry the Republican Party as the party of “no.”  Folks like Jeb Hensarling and Mike Pence, however, are proving that a resurgent GOP, finally in touch with its conservative and libertarian roots, could be better described as the party of “bravo.”



  1. John Feeny says:

    Can I stop banging my head now?

  2. JimBeen1949 says:

    Don’t know why you’re banging your head. While we’re in dire straits now, this is a sign that the leadership we’ll be sure to have in November actually gets it. THEY GET IT! FINALLY!

    Now, let’s just work our butts off to get the Democrats outta there.


    PS: The linked Jim Bunning article is excellent, by the way. This is my first time at this website and I will definitiely be coming back.

  3. Ruth says:

    Even my husband, who is practically non-politican and liberal when he puts his toe into the waters, knows that the current path is unsustainable. He also knows that when we get into a pinch financially that the last thing we should do is borrow and spend more. He would approve of this measure even though he thinks Republicans are despicable. And yes, he knows that they are “my people”. Go figure.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sad that it is necessary to muck up a beautiful document with something so common sense as don’t spend more than you can afford.

  5. VA #5 says:

    Great point anonymous! It’s sad that common sense must not only be legislated, but put as an amendment to our constitution. The constitution was meant to restrain our government from the great evils governments have wrought throughout history. Unfortunately, since our legislators have ignored its text for so long, we’re in uncharted territory. I doubt the founders anticipated such catastrophic wandering from our path. Short of a massive overhaul of our nation, and the destruction of the “general welfare” clause, maybe legislating common sense is our best recourse…

  6. Randy Wills says:

    I’m a fan of Mike Pence, in particular, but for him and Jeb Hensarling to suggest that there is any solution, including cutting our spending, that will circumvent a major readjustment of our current national standard-of-living expectations is a failure to recognize the obvious. By astronomically mortgaging our assets while, at the same time, shipping our economic growth overseas in search of low cost labor and materials, we have already doomed future generations to a lower standard of living. We dug a big hole and there’s no way to go around it; we, and our children and grandchildren, have no choice but to draw from the future fruits of our labor sufficient funds to fill that hole before we can move forward.

    The only thing that might possibly dampen the effects of the coming economic upheaval is a nation-wide, self-imposed, readjustment of our standard-of-living expectations and the concomitant reordering of individual financial priorities. Our national goal must be to become competitive again in the worldwide market for products and services. Anything short of that will inevitably result in double-digit unemployment rates and increasing dependency on government subsidies, neither one of which is very conducive to a high national standard of living.


  7. Bill Walker says:

    For reference. All 50 states have already submitted over 700 applications for an Article V Convention call. The Constitution mandates a call if 34 states submit 34 applications. Congress has refused to call a convention despite the mandate of the Constitution. The texts of the applications can be read at and include the 36 states that have asked for a spending limit or balanced budget amendment.

  8. Gail B. says:

    Thanks, Bill Walker.

    I copied and pasted your entire comment (with name and date) and sent it to my political forum.


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