The Right Coast

February 04, 2004
A Spending Supermajority Rule
By Michael Rappaport

Today in the Wall Street Journal, John McGinnis and I have published an op ed piece arguing in favor of a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority to pass spending laws. For those interested in reading the op ed, I think this link should work for the next week. Otherwise, here is a taste of the longer piece:
    President Bush’s inability to control the federal budget demonstrates yet again that democracy’s inclination toward excessive spending is as powerful as a force of nature. The past two year’s outrageous 8.2 percent increase in domestic discretionary spending is unfortunately only the latest example of excessive government spending. Since the beginning of the century, domestic federal spending has increased more than tenfold from less than two percent of GDP to approximately twenty percent today. As the quantity of spending has increased, moreover, the quality has declined, with larger proportions going to transfers from one group of citizens to another rather than to public goods.
We view this problem as largely one produced by special interests:
    The Republican Congress’s failure to enforce spending priorities worthy of the party of limited government shows that excessive spending has no partisan affiliation. Regardless of the party in power, special interests always favor more spending, because they can earmark the benefits for themselves and diffuse the costs of excessive taxes or debt on the general citizenry. Today the Republican majority wants to lavish spending on highways, pharmaceuticals, and other items that benefit their supporting interest groups.
While some have advocated a balanced budget amendment to address this type of problem, we argue that:
    A better structural reform would involve a spending limitation amendment. Such an amendment could address excessive spending directly by requiring that Congress obtain a two thirds or three fifths majority to pass any new spending laws. Spending could also be precisely defined as all net payments that move from the Treasury to other hands.

    Our proposed amendment would avoid two kinds of criticisms that have been made in the context of balanced budget amendments. First, some critics might fear that a supermajority rule would perversely provide additional leverage to a minority favoring higher spending because that minority can threaten to shut down the government unless additional spending is enacted. As we learned during the Clinton era, citizens understandably fear government shut downs because the government’s core functions sustain the social order. Our amendment would deprive holdouts of additional leverage because it would allow a mere majority to pass spending laws so long as total spending remained less than ninety percent of the previous year’s total. A congressional majority could therefore prevent a government shut down, but there would still be pressure eventually to pass spending under the supermajority rule because Congress will almost always wants to spend at levels higher than ninety percent.