Constitutional Amendment to Address Spending and Debt

Reports on the controversy over continuing resolutions and raising the debt ceiling usually neglect to examine the underlying constitutional problem with the way government obligations are incurred.

From the U.S. Constitution, Art. I Sec. 8, we have that

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; …

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

But in Sec. 9, we have that

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law;

And from the 14th Amendment, Sec. 4:

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

Some who are in the camp who favor raising the debt ceiling, or even argue it is unconstitutional, say that we are constitutionally bound not to “default” on the “debts” of the United States, but gloss over whether or how such “debt” was “authorized by law”.

Missing from the Constitution is a more clear statement that appropriations by Congress must not only limit spending, but the incurring of debt or other obligations requiring future expenditures. In the absence of such language Congress has allowed government agencies to incur debt and other obligations that are not confined to expenditure appropriations and limited only by a general ceiling covering the entire government. Most of the greatest expenditures are not from appropriated funds, and include “entitlements” in which private individuals can write indefinite obligations to themselves merely by “applying” for benefits and having such applications accepted by nameless bureaucrats.

I have proposed a constitutional amendment to correct this defect:

Clarification of appropriation
No expenditure shall be made, or obligation incurred or committed, by or for the government or any activity under its supervision, except within appropriations enacted by Congress, which shall specify the amount and the department or activity it may support, and which shall not exceed six years.

Under this amendment, when Congress adopts an appropriation (which includes the separate “authorization”) for expenditure, they must also appropriate limited authority to incur indebtedness, for that same department or activity. It would limit such appropriations, including any ‘continuing resolutions”, not to exceed six years without a new appropriation.

The effect of it would also be that government could not incur debt, including by accepting applications for benefits, in excess of the appropriation. If during the course of the fiscal year the limit on something like social security or Medicare were reached, the government could approve no more applications for it, and could pay out no more than what was appropriated. It could not only not purchase a tank or a plane for cash if the appropriation were exceeded, but not on credit, either.

This proposal in some form is not new, but until now has not had political traction. It is time for fiscally responsible citizens to demand it, not just in practice, but as an amendment to the Constitution.

Jon Roland, Founder of the Constitution Society

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