When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, he inherited a national debt of several tens of millions of dollars, an immense sum for the time. This was a legacy of the large standing army created by Alexander Hamilton during the Adams administration. Over the next eight years, despite paying Napoleon $15 million for the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Jefferson succeeded in maintaining balanced budgets and significantly paying down the debt.
Jefferson believed that governments debt was something to be avoided at all costs. He stated specifically that whenever a government was compelled by some emergency to borrow money, it should implement a tax to ensure that the debt was paid off within twenty years at most. Failure to do so, in his mind, constituted an act of theft against a generation that hadn't even been born yet. It was not only bad fiscal policy, but was a crime.
Today, the national debt is obscene: roughly $11.7 trillion. That's roughly $38,000 per citizen. And the debt is increasing by nearly $4 billion every day. In 2008, the federal government spent $249 billion, 8% of the total budget, just to pay the interest on the debt. Jefferson would be shocked and dismayed, and would tell us that we should be ashamed of ourselves.
The nation's disastrous fiscal situation is one of the great issues of our time. Neither of the two major parties are willing to address the issue, and both act as though the problem doesn't exist. Since they would rather pass the buck on to unborn generations than face the wrath of living voters, members of Congress are always more willing to go more deeply into debt than they are to either raise taxes or decrease spending.
The last time the country saw a balanced budget was in the last years of the Clinton Administration. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush advocated using the surplus to cut taxes, whereas Al Gore called for using it to secure various government programs. The idea of actually using the surplus to pay down the debt never seems to have occurred to either of them.
If things continue down this path, the troubled fiscal structure of the United States will completely collapse, taking the country with it. But there is a solution to this problem: a Balanced Budget Amendment.
The gist of such an amendment would be very simple: the federal government cannot spend more than it earns in any fiscal year. Obviously, emergencies such as war or economic depression may occasionally require deficit spending, so the amendment would have to include a provision allowing Congress to engage in deficit spending if a supermajority (three-fourths would seem appropriate) declares such an emergency to be in effect, or Congress declares war against a foreign power. To avoid misuse of this provision, the amendment would have to require such emergency deficit spending to be strictly temporary, requiring another two-thirds vote to be renewed for an additional fiscal year.
Under the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, the federal government must convene a convention to discuss possible amendments to the Constitution if two-thirds of the states request it. In the early 1990s, this very nearly happened when 32 states (just two short of the required 34) had filed requests with Congress for a convention specifically to discuss a Balanced Budget Amendment. Some states subsequently rescinded their request, but this pressure from the states was partially responsible for the more responsible behavior of the federal government on budget issues in the 1990s, when we actually had a surplus for a few years. Since then, unfortunately, any semblance of fiscal responsibility has been thrown away.
Next year is a congressional election year, and some jockeying in the primaries has already begun. 21st Century Jeffersonians should take every opportunity to meet with congressional and state legislative candidates of all parties and ask them whether or not they support a Balanced Budget Amendment. Their response to that question should go a long way in determining who you end up voting for.