Balanced Budget Amendment Needed to Fix National Debt Crisis

If Congress had passed a balanced budget amendment 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be in this fiscal wreck.


Orrin Hatch is the senior senator from Utah and ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

In 1997, after a fierce debate, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution I introduced was defeated by just one vote in the United States Senate. Fourteen years later, our nation is facing a debt crisis of epic proportions. Our national debt has gone from roughly $5 trillion in 1997 to over $14 trillion today. That’s more than $45,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.

And that debt keeps growing. According to Congress’s nonpartisan budget scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office, the nation’s debt could reach an astonishing 90 percent of gross domestic product in less than a decade, with the government spending almost $1 trillion on interest payments alone. [See editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

It’s no wonder the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, said, “Our national debt is our biggest national security threat.” And the International Monetary Fund recently found that the United States doesn’t have a “credible strategy” to confront this looming crisis.

This situation has only gotten worse under the Obama administration. Over the last two years, discretionary spending has increased by 84 percent, if you include the failed economic stimulus, with spending reaching 25 percent of our nation’s economic output—a level not seen since World War II.

In fact, our skyrocketing debt is the number one issue I hear about from the people of my state of Utah, who rightly do not understand why Washington can’t make the tough choices they do for their families.

There’s no doubt that if Congress had passed a balanced budget amendment over 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the fiscal wreck we are in today. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put our nation on a more secure fiscal path by enacting one today. In the Senate, 47 senators are supporting a balanced budget amendment I’ve introduced that would require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress every year that limits spending to 18 percent of gross domestic product, and that requires supermajorities in both houses of Congress to raise taxes or increase spending. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress increase the debt ceiling?]

In fact, this isn’t a novel or new idea. Every state, except Vermont, and countries like Germany and Switzerland all have this common-sense requirement. It’s time Washington does as well.

Some ask, why do we need a constitutional amendment—why can’t Congress and the White House come together and cut our debt? The answer is simple: This is the only way to force Washington to act. In fact, every grand compromise over the past three decades to tackle our debt has been undone almost immediately after being enacted by Congress, with massive spending increases almost as soon as the ink is dry.

Today, our nation is having a great debate over the size, scope, and shape of our national government—over how much we can afford without forcing future generations to foot the bill. The president is asking Congress to raise our debt limit without putting forward any meaningful proposals to combat our debt. I strongly believe that before we even consider this, the Senate must take up a balanced budget amendment. This kind of strong budgetary reform would put us on a path to fiscal health and would forestall this White House or any future White House from asking the American people to simply greenlight more debt.

A balanced budget amendment makes sense; its time has more than come. Now, Congress must act.

See the other side of the debate: Read Center for American Progress senior fellow Scott Lilly on why a balanced budget amendment would be a dangerous distraction.

This poll is now closed, but the debate continues in the comments section.

Does the U.S. Need a Balanced Budget Amendment?

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  • Read the U.S. News debate: Should Congress increase the debt ceiling?
  • Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons about the budget and deficit.
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