Sen. Mike Lee’s Freedom Agenda: A balanced budget amendment is the way forward

posted at 2:40 pm on July 18, 2011 by Tina Korbe

For years, Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee thought it was common for families to sit around the dinner table and discuss the Constitution like his did. Growing up, he used to watch his father, Rex Lee, U.S. solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was 10 when his parents explained the legal complexities of Roe v. Wade — and he grasped instantly both that the decision was an insult to human dignity and that it was problematic from a 10th Amendment standpoint.

It makes sense, then, that Lee, who ultimately became a constitutional lawyer, would someday find himself at the helm of a renewed and reinvigorated movement to pass an important amendment to the Constitution — an amendment to require Congress to balance the budget annually. He might be “just” a freshman senator who decided to run for office in 2010 after he watched, for two years, the big spending that so stirred up the Tea Party — but he has observed and considered the larger issues at stake in the spending fight his entire life.

If anybody understands just how high the hurdles are to amend the Constitution, it’s Lee. At the same time, nobody knows better just how important a balanced budget amendment is for freedom. From Lee’s perspective, the fight to restore constitutionally limited government and the push to pass a balanced budget amendment are one and the same.

That’s why Lee introduced his own version of a BBA almost as soon as he entered the Senate — and why he is a cosponsor of the Senate’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” legislation, as well. It’s also why he wrote the book “The Freedom Agenda: Why a Balanced Budget Amendment Is Necessary to Restore Constitutional Government,” out today from Regnery Publishing, Inc.

“My central thesis in this book is that governments can get into a cycle in which they will inevitably expand to the point where they will dangerously erode individual liberty if they have access to an unlimited pot of money,” Lee said Friday in an exclusive interview. “If they draw from an unlimited well of cash, then they will continue to expand — always at the expense of individual liberty. …

“Now, if every time government expands, it pays for that expansion through immediate tax increases, then in a republic like ours … those people who voted to expand government would do so at their own peril. They would stop getting reelected at some point if they continued to expand because they would have to raise taxes whenever they did that. But that safety valve doesn’t work quite like it should when politicians have the option of hiding the cost of government expansion through massive, perpetual deficit spending.”

Without an amendment, Lee says, the political temptation to spend will always outstrip any incentive to rein in federal programming.

“Congress enjoys spending a lot of money,” Lee said. “They get a lot of praise when they spend; they tend to get criticized when they cut. They like to feel like they’re doing something good. It’s really fun to sort of play Santa Claus, to give people things that they want. I’m not even talking about wasteful spending here. I’m talking about spending on endeavors that can fairly be described as good causes. But it becomes addictive.”

Immediate spending cuts and long-term statutory spending caps might help to some extent — but they historically have rather short shelf lives, Lee said.

“Eventually Congress is just going to repeal those,” he said. “That’s why we need an amendment because that’s the only way we can bind future Congresses.”

Lee thinks the chances of enacting a balanced budget amendment are better now than ever before — thanks to majority support among the public, the “Cut, Cap and Balance” legislation on the table in both the House and the Senate (the threat of a presidential veto notwithstanding) and the clear electoral mandate so many Tea Party candidates like Lee received.

“Those of us who have been elected to Congress more recently feel strongly that we’re there for a reason,” he said. “Our constituents elected us because they’re not comfortable with the way things are going. They want Washington to change quite fundamentally the way it spends money.”

The senator said he hopes his book demonstrates to any remaining doubters how an amendment answers most concerns about the growth of government.

“My hope is that any American who is concerned as I am about the perpetual expansion of the federal government and wants to preserve freedom for future Americans and present Americans will read this book,” he said.


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The chances of passing a BB amendment might be better but I think they are still not good.

taney71 on July 18, 2011 at 2:48 PM

I wish we had 50 more Mike Lee’s in the Senate.

Him, Rand, and DeMint can’t do everything themselves.

Chaffetz should help.

AUH2O on July 18, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Without an amendment, Lee says, the political temptation to spend will always outstrip any incentive to rein in federal programming.

Liberals never seem to understand that. The more power the government has, the more corrupt it becomes.

darwin on July 18, 2011 at 2:52 PM

Lee Lee Lee!

cmsinaz on July 18, 2011 at 2:53 PM

Constitutional amendments should only be enacted when great matters require big solutions that are not achievable through regular legislation. Turdboy says that we don’t need an amendment, the executive and legislative branches just need to do their jobs. With two political parties diametrically opposed on this issue, the likelihood of Congress doing it’s job (properly) is, as Rush would say, slim to none and slim left town. The potential negatives of a constitutional amendment appear quite small in comparison to the positives. Granted, the law of unintended consequences will apply, but we ought to be smart enough to mitigate any negative consequences at the outset. I’m for it.

SKYFOX on July 18, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Without an amendment, Lee says, the political temptation to spend will always outstrip any incentive to rein in federal programming.

Liberals never seem to understand that. The more power the government has, the more corrupt it becomes.

darwin on July 18, 2011 at 2:52 PM

I disagree, not only do they understand it, they are absolutely counting on it to stay in power.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:01 PM

I disagree, not only do they understand it, they are absolutely counting on it to stay in power.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:01 PM

Well you’re right about the “liberals” who see government as a means to an end. There are the naive ones who’ve bought the lies of the left and believe big government is a good thing.

darwin on July 18, 2011 at 3:06 PM

I wonder how the democrats can justify being against a balanced budget amendment?

darwin on July 18, 2011 at 3:12 PM

balanced budget amendment = really bad idea

“We must raise taxes to balance the budget, it is in the constitution!”

equanimous on July 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Sen. Mike Lee – Hot Air guest contributor..

Sheesh…

NoStoppingUs on July 18, 2011 at 3:18 PM

BBA is a waste of time and another “easy fix” by the elites.

Instead of being responsible, acting like adults and making hard choices, they’ll use the endless process of trying to get an amendment approved as an excuse for non action.

rickyricardo on July 18, 2011 at 3:20 PM

Thank you Utah!

AH_C on July 18, 2011 at 3:21 PM

balanced budget amendment = really bad idea

“We must raise taxes to balance the budget, it is in the constitution!”

equanimous on July 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Bingo. Another stupid Republican idea that does not require tough choices. It’s another skirt to hide behind when taxes need to be raised.

rickyricardo on July 18, 2011 at 3:22 PM

Any time constitutional amendments are trotted out, I wonder whether any of them would be simpler or better for our country than, “interstate commerce requires a buyer and seller of an identifiable good or service that are in different states.”

cthulhu on July 18, 2011 at 3:22 PM

I wonder how the democrats can justify being against a balanced budget amendment?

darwin on July 18, 2011 at 3:12 PM

How can the Republicans be so ignorant as to give this constitutional mandate for higher taxes to the progressives?

rickyricardo on July 18, 2011 at 3:23 PM

What both parties have proven over the last 50 to 60 years is that neither can be trusted to look after the treasury. The only method left to us, the People, is to bind them up so tightly that they CAN’T continue to borrow and make slaves of our children and grandchildren. It may already be too late, but an amendment MUST be tried. DOWNSIZE DC!

djtnt on July 18, 2011 at 3:26 PM

A resolution from another Lee a few hundred years back changed the course of history for the nation and the world.

Is it time to declare ourselves free of (of debt) and independent (of government “largesse”) again?

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

publiuspen on July 18, 2011 at 3:28 PM

If you want to see what a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget can do, look no further than the state of Texas.

Caiwyn on July 18, 2011 at 3:30 PM

balanced budget amendment = really bad idea

“We must raise taxes to balance the budget, it is in the constitution!”

equanimous on July 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

I think the point is that if they politicians have to raise taxes constantly to balance the budget, they will soon be unemployed. Right now, they can hide from the truth using deficit spending. At least, that is how I read the excerpts.

search4truth on July 18, 2011 at 3:35 PM

balanced budget amendment = really bad idea
“We must raise taxes to balance the budget, it is in the constitution!”
equanimous on July 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Only if the enforcement mechanism is to raise taxes. Written properly, such an amendment would call for automatic cuts.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 3:38 PM

BBA is a waste of time and another “easy fix” by the elites.

Instead of being responsible, acting like adults and making hard choices, they’ll use the endless process of trying to get an amendment approved as an excuse for non action.

rickyricardo on July 18, 2011 at 3:20 PM

That’s why you “CAP” it to a % of GDP. That way you can’t just raise taxes to cover your outrageous spending.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:42 PM

Frankly, my take on a BBA would be to require the President to submit a budget request with no more spending in it than the previous year’s tax receipts, which congress then votes on, in full or in pieces, with congress only able to pass spending not on that budget by a 2/3 majority.
Though a hard cap on spending as a fraction of GDP might be nice too.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Combine this reforming the tax code to get rid of income tax and replace it with a national sales tax, and I’d say you have a winner.

No more class warfare. No more rich vs poor. You tax the money when it’s spent.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:49 PM

BBA is a waste of time and another “easy fix” by the elites.
Instead of being responsible, acting like adults and making hard choices, they’ll use the endless process of trying to get an amendment approved as an excuse for non action.
rickyricardo on July 18, 2011 at 3:20 PM
That’s why you “CAP” it to a % of GDP. That way you can’t just raise taxes to cover your outrageous spending.
E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:42 PM

Actually, I think he means that promoting the BBA is a smokescreen.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 3:51 PM

BBA is the dumbest idea ever- 1/2 our laws are already unconstitutional. You think bba is gonna change congress now? No, we need to incentivise them- pay each congressman a cool million to balance it every year, as scored by cbo – u watch them hustle to cut spending

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 3:52 PM

CA and IL both have balanced budget amendments and are two huge offenders at running up unsustainable debt and spending.

MarkT on July 18, 2011 at 3:52 PM

Every person should work for incentives. Why is congress different?

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 3:53 PM

He’ll, throw em another mil to keep revenues at 18% GDP and wattch the economy explode

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 3:54 PM

According to the Constitutional Professor don Economics Guru “job-killing-spending-cut” BHO, this is a non-starter.

Sir Napsalot on July 18, 2011 at 3:57 PM

See whT markT says- bba is a waste of time. We pay congress to do the job right and they will- and the chairs of comittees lose their hold over junior members

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 3:57 PM

Actually, I think he means that promoting the BBA is a smokescreen.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 3:51 PM

Whatever, when it comes down to it; the so called “adults” in the room can’t even pass a budget. Let them bring a bill to the table instead of just talking out their @$$.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:59 PM

Combine this reforming the tax code to get rid of income tax and replace it with a national sales tax, and I’d say you have a winner.
No more class warfare. No more rich vs poor. You tax the money when it’s spent.
E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:49 PM

Uh, no. A national sales tax will make a tax cheat out of everyone. We should scrap all of the sales taxes, and potentially have local governments set their own income tax instead. Reform of the federal tax laws should be to get rid of business taxes entirely, and put a flat tax on wages and dividends, with no deductions or credits.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:00 PM

drballard: If you want to go this route, $1M per Congressman is not enough. If a Congressman needed this incentive, that implies that they are corrupt. If they are corrupt, they can easily make $1M annually just from kickbacks, etc.

Scott H on July 18, 2011 at 4:00 PM

“We must raise taxes to balance the budget, it is in the constitution!”

equanimous on July 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM

Read the BBA amendments. They all have a cap on spending so they can raise spending to the cap and then raise taxes to meet that, but no more. Then they will be voted out and someone else can vote to reduce spending and taxes.

Kafir on July 18, 2011 at 4:10 PM

But that’s how it works now- u bribe the chair of a committee ~ u can’t bribe alll 435 members

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 4:11 PM

Combine this reforming the tax code to get rid of income tax and replace it with a national sales tax, and I’d say you have a winner.

No more class warfare. No more rich vs poor. You tax the money when it’s spent.

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 3:49 PM

That’s next.

Kafir on July 18, 2011 at 4:13 PM

See, now it’s horse trading- I’ll send this Project to your district, u vote for
My bridge. But who would vOte to give up a cool mil a year? There are bribes, but u still can get caught ( see Jeffords)

drballard on July 18, 2011 at 4:14 PM

Uh, no. A national sales tax will make a tax cheat out of everyone.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:00 PM

So how is that different from now?

E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 4:18 PM

He is wrong though…

“Now, if every time government expands, it pays for that expansion through immediate tax increases, then in a republic like ours … those people who voted to expand government would do so at their own peril. They would stop getting reelected at some point if they continued to expand because they would have to raise taxes whenever they did that. But that safety valve doesn’t work quite like it should when politicians have the option of hiding the cost of government expansion through massive, perpetual deficit spending.”

How it would work. They spend more, then they blame tax hikes on the Constitution. Next, the tax hikes cause a recession the following year and we have a deficit. Until everyone in DC recognizes that tax hikes leads to less revenue for the future, this is a BAD idea.

jeffn21 on July 18, 2011 at 4:24 PM

Here goes one more time. California has had a balanced budget amendment at least these last ten years. It ain’t working! There are too many tried and true ways around it. Don’t care how “carefully it’s constructed”, greed will find a way.

OTOH, repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment would be a damn good start.

Look it up yourself. Maybe you’ll find other ideas of interest, too.

Caststeel on July 18, 2011 at 4:25 PM

So how is that different from now?
E L Frederick (Sniper One) on July 18, 2011 at 4:18 PM

Do you cheat on your income taxes?
Or do you buy things at yard sales without paying sales tax?

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Caststeel on July 18, 2011 at 4:25 PM

No it doesn’t. It just has a rule that it takes a supermajority to increase taxes.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:29 PM

drballard is worried about corruption. I have the solution, but it is more spending. I am sure that the sepnding would not be that much in the end though and everyone could get behind it.

A branch of the FBI investigates no one but congressmen and women. There are 2 agents assigned to each member of congress and it is done on a lottery and changed every 6 months. The lottery is done via a computer, sealed and given to the agents. No one besides the two agents know who they are investigating. The agents auotmatically have cameras in every congressional office and bugs on every phone, and they have access to all financial records. Now the real kicker… The agents get their annual bonus checks according to how many fines/ jail time is given to a member of congress from their research.

If members of congress don’t like it, then they can leave congress. Leaders need to be held to a higher standard than anyone else, not lower.

Getting this passed would be next to impossible.

jeffn21 on July 18, 2011 at 4:32 PM

I just read recently an article on Mike in the latest BYU alumni magazine It is fantastic. Hatch, Reid, and Romney (who I still like) are the old guard of Mormon politicians. They each have misgivings and have been swayed by the system. The new breed (Lee, Chaffetz, Flake)–you WANT them on that wall. YOU NEED THEM on that wall! They will be an incredible force for good–in limited government, integrity, and conservative principles.

pacard33 on July 18, 2011 at 4:36 PM

No it doesn’t. It just has a rule that it takes a supermajority to increase taxes.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:29 PM

BTDT. That doesn’t work, too. 2/3rds.
Any other good ideas? Serious now, they have all been tried in CA and all failed. Would there was a book or some site. The story is long.

Caststeel on July 18, 2011 at 4:39 PM

No it doesn’t. It just has a rule that it takes a supermajority to increase taxes.

Count to 10 on July 18, 2011 at 4:29 PM

How about a comment on the second idea in my 4:29?

Caststeel on July 18, 2011 at 4:42 PM

you don’t need a BBA for the House to pass a budget that matches current revenues… take the 2006 budget, or whichever one provides the best match, do a search and replace and pass it in the house…. Tell the Preznitwit that he and San Fran Nan hired all those people since 2006, it’s time for them to hand out the pink-slips

phreshone on July 18, 2011 at 4:46 PM