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.