Over the past 30 years, a number of proposals for a balanced-budget amendment to the US Constitution have floated around Capitol Hill, but have gone almost nowhere.  States and voters may like the idea of Washington living within its means, but members of Congress don’t particularly care for the idea whenever it arises.  Reps. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) have a different approach in their new proposal, which focuses less on balancing budgets and more on limiting them:

This amendment would limit spending to one-fifth of the economy (our historical spending average since World War II). The limit could only be waived by a declaration of war or by a two-thirds congressional vote.

As with other constitutional amendments, Congress would be given the authority to enforce and implement it. But for the first time, the federal government would have a limit on its size and scope. The Spending Limit Amendment does not promise a particular spending plan about what programs to restrain and by how much. Rather, it puts a legal constraint on lawmakers present and future.

Some will say it should not be done now. But if not now, when?

Our spending problems are tantamount to generational theft and fundamentally alter the American ethic. We cannot have both unlimited government and unlimited opportunity.

That’s a lesson we’re currently learning the hard way … or, more accurately, some of us are learning.  The current administration and Democratic Congress keep doubling down on spending and deficits.  As government sucks up more capital, and as it sends strong pricing signals for massive taxes in order to service its enormous debt, the opportunities for Americans to prosper in freedom rather than toil in servitude to a nanny state will rapidly decline.

This brings up several questions, primarily whether 20% of GDP is the right number for a limit.  We’re already exceeding it at 24.7% now, and an explosion of entitlement commitments will put us around 40% within a couple of decades on our current trajectory.  Five years ago, we were barely under that.  Many people would argue that the cap should be even lower, and that having the federal government soak up every fifth dollar will still mean long-term trouble for economic growth.  Such a cap would force immediate entitlement reform, though, and it would push it in a direction that would make entitlement programs smaller, probably means-tested, and substantially privatized.

Of course, a Constitutional amendment would require two-thirds of Congress to pass it and three-quarters of the states to ratify it.  Even assuming that such a limitation would get two-thirds of Congress in support, would the states follow suit?  Possibly, although it might be a double-edged sword for them.  As the federal government reduces its size, it will put more pressure on states to replace the federal programs that get eliminated.  States often complain about unfunded mandates, but they don’t mind dipping into the federal trough, either.

If nothing else, it will start a much-needed debate on the proper size of the federal government, a debate that has been secondary to every issue on the national stage but rarely debated separately.  Whether or not 20% is the right number, we need to make a decision on some limitation Americans want for the cost of its government so that policymakers can know their limitations.  They certainly don’t know them now.