Constitutional Solutions to Our Escalating National Debt: Examining Balanced Budget Amendments

Testimony Before the House Committee on the Judiciary

Constitutional rules, unlike statutory or internal rules, are difficult to change. If written to cover the entire budget, avoid loopholes, and make waivers difficult to obtain, Constitutional rules can provide the enforcement mechanism that will help ensure that specific reforms to entitlements, defense, and other spending areas will not be undone by future Congresses.

Chairman Goodlatte, Ranking Member Conyers, and members of the committee: Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the need for a constitutional amendment to help achieve credible and sustainable fiscal reform.

I am an associate professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, where I hold the Ani and Mark Gabrellian professorship. I am also a senior scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. I have written a book, Rules and Restraint  (University of Chicago Press, 2007), and several articles regarding budget rules and fiscal policy.1  I testified before this committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution on May 13, 2011, on the same subject, and it is an honor to be asked back to address the full committee.2 

My three-part message today is simple.

First, the United States’ current fiscal trajectory must change.

Second, the short-run focus in politics, combined with Congress’s institutional prerogatives, make achieving this change—in the form of durable, long-term reform—an elusive goal.

Third, a constitutional amendment, if properly designed, can create the pathway for Congress to do what’s needed to place the United States government’s finances on firm fiscal ground.


We have made promises to current and future generations that we have no hope of fulfi lling given current revenue streams. The US Treasury estimates that the national debt will approach 250 percent of GDP by 2080 (see figure 1).3 For the record, I do not believe this estimate. It’s not that I dispute the Treasury’s calculations. The problem is that the economy or the US government’s fi nances—or both— will implode long before then. This estimate, along with long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Offi ce (CBO) and others, sends a clear message: the current path is not sustainable.

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