May 19, 2011

Is a Constitutional Budget Rule Necessary?

David M. Primo

Senior Affiliated Scholar

Statutory and internal rules don't work very well, but Constitutional rules, unlike other rules, can provide the enforcement mechanism that will help ensure that reforms to entitlements, defense, and other spending areas will not be undone by future Congresses.

Some critics in Congress argue that a Constitutional amendment is unnecessary or too risky, but in fact, they are more worried about losing power. The history of failed budget rules suggests that the rules are necessary, and speculative risks should be balanced against the very real danger that Congress will not be able to abide by the rules it sets out for itself.

To prevent bad rules from being “locked-in” to the Constitution, legislators should construct rules that are: general and apply to the entire federal budget, are precise and prevent the use of loopholes or gimmicks, and are limited, carefully constructed exit options.

The political reality is that the hard cuts in any plan are usually deferred until well into the future. The likelihood of long-term agreements having durability in the absence of some enforcement mechanism is very small, but a Constitutional amendment can help us avoid making this a wasted opportunity.