John Locke Update / Research Newsletter (Archive)

Federal Fiscal Impotence and a State-Led Solution

posted on in Fiscal Insight

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United States voters overwhelmingly support a constitutional constraint on the federal government’s spending. The sentiment is so bipartisan that 49 of the 50 states even have their own forms of balanced budget amendments.

Yet, federal officials face no such check and continue to spend beyond their means to a ludicrous degree. The official debt of almost $16 trillion equates to more than $50,000 for every single person in the United States. A more accurate gauge, which includes unfunded liabilities such as Medicare and Social Security benefits, places the total at over $200 trillion.

The debt ceiling, which Congress has raised more than 70 times since the 1960s, is a joke. Someone going to the bank and unilaterally raising his own credit limit, without any hope of repayment, does not equate to accountability.

As I’ve noted before, politicians face perverse incentives to buy off voter blocks on the backs of future generations. So federal congressmen are not going to restrain themselves; restraint will have to come from a competing group.

While many states allow for citizen-led constitutional amendments, the United States at the federal level does not. There are two different methods that can be used to amend the US Constitution.  The first, outlined in Article V, allows for the process to be initiated by a two-thirds majority in Congress. The wording of any subsequent amendment then needs ratification by three-quarters of the state legislatures.

The second method — through an amendments convention initiated by two thirds of the state legislatures — has yet to be utilized since original ratification of the Constitution. However, the time for action in this realm has more than arrived. Fortunately, prominent policy institutes and advocacy groups such as the Goldwater Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council are putting their weight behind a state-initiated amendment.

While working with the Pelican Institute in Louisiana, I also edited and published an array of research and commentary on the matter.  The National Debt Relief Amendment resolution also achieved passage there during the 2011 legislative session, following earlier passage in North Dakota.

"An increase in the federal debt requires approval from a majority of the legislatures of the separate States."


  • The poor performance of the state treasurer, Janet Cowell, has drawn my attention recently. And tonight at 5, 5:30, 6, and 11pm, ABC 11 Eyewitness News will be broadcasting an expose on the state’s pension fund, worth more than $70 billion. I’ll look to share the clip next week, for those unable to catch it live.
  • My most recent newsletter discussed migration as a form of revealed preference, and then last week many media outlets reported the trend toward a return to Mexico of many immigrants, legal and illegal. All I can say is, "Actions speak louder than words."
  • At the John Locke Foundation’s recent candidate briefing, I gave the fiscal presentation. Click here to watch the video (10 minutes).

Click here for the Fiscal Insights archive.


Fergus Hodgson (@FergHodgson) is Director of Fiscal Policy Studies at the John Locke Foundation, a Policy Advisor with The Future of Freedom Foundation, and a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force. He… ...

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