Meese: Balanced Budget Amendment Will Backfire Unless It Curbs Spending, Taxes, Courts

By Matt Cover | October 31, 2011 | 10:41am EDT

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (Heritage Foundation photo)

( - Edwin Meese, who served as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, told on Friday that adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution will backfire unless the amendment caps federal spending, requires supermajorities in Congress to raise taxes and restricts the ability of judges to preempt the elected branches in determining federal taxing and spending laws.

A weak Balanced Budget Amendment--without certain safeguards and protections against excessive taxation and excessive spending--would be worse than the situation we have at the present time,” Meese said in a videotaped interview at the Heritage Foundation.

“It would be used by those who seek to have an expanded government and increased taxes to make it mandatory to increase taxes,” said Meese. “It would make it much easier to raise taxes, and that’s why the important thing is to have a protection, for example, that it would take two-thirds of both houses in order to increase taxes … and, likewise, that there be some sort of a cap on expenditures, perhaps in relation to Gross Domestic Product.

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“It’s also very important,” said Meese, “that the balanced budget amendment provide that the courts would not be empowered to enforce the provisions of the balanced budget amendment because that would turn over to the courts the ability for them to raise taxes perhaps or to exercise powers that the Constitution gives to the elected branches of the government, and that is adopting the spending plan for the federal government.”

The legislation to increase  the federal debt limit that House Speaker John Boehner negotiated with President Barack Obama in August directs that both houses of Congress will vote on a balanced budget amendment before the end of this year. But the law does not specify what type of balanced budget amendment the House and Senate will take up for a vote.

When asked Boehner last week if the Republican leadership had ruled out voting on a balanced budget amendment that did not cap federal spending as a percentage of GDP or require supermajorities in both houses to raise taxes, Boehner said the leadership had not decided what type of balanced budget amendment it would bring to a vote.

“There are at least half a dozen different versions of a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution," Boehner told at his Thursday press briefing. "Many of us believe that a balanced budget amendment is the ultimate enforcement mechanism to control spending here in Washington.

“As we approach this vote, the [majority] leader and I are going to listen to our members about which version they would want us to vote on, and we’ve got no decision yet, but we’re going to work with our members to make that decision,” Boehner said.

Boehner’s answer moved the Republican leadership away from the Cut, Cap and Balance Act that the Republican-controlled House passed 234-190 back in July. That act called for Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment that capped federal spending as a percentage of GDP—18 percent was the figure cited by its authors—and that required two-thirds majorities in both houses to enact a tax increase.

Like Meese, other conservative analysts believe that a balanced budget amendment that does not cap spending, require supermajorities to raise taxes, and curb the power of federal judges to preempt to tax and spending powers of the elected branches, will be a formula for bigger government, higher taxes and a dimunition of representative government in the United States.

When asked about the possibility of a balanced budget amendment that lacks curbs on the power of judges being used by courts to usurp power from the legislative and executive branches, Meese said efforts to do just that have already been seen on the state level.

We’ve already seen that happen in the states where they have balanced budget amendments, where courts have said they have to raise taxes,” said Meese. “We have seen federal courts even try to raise taxes in the states to accomplish certain objectives. Fortunately, that was overruled by the Supreme Court.”

“But, in any event,” said Meese, “if you had … a balanced budget amendment without the protections against judicial interference, the courts could then arrogate that power to themselves through a lawsuit, as they have for example in the area of national security, where they have invaded what has always been powers reserved to the elected branches.”

While warning that a weak balanced budget amendment that does not cap spending, restrain taxation, and curb courts would be worse than the current situation, Meese said that a strong balanced budget amendment with those provisions would help restore limited government.

A strong balanced budget amendment is a protection against a runaway spending binge by the federal government such as we’ve seen particularly in the last few years,” said Meese.

“A balanced budget, requiring Congress to balance the budget on an annual basis, means that first of all we get a budget--we haven’t had one for a couple of years--and secondly it means that that budget would be within reasonable limits, spending limits as well as limits in terms of not being balanced by taxation.

“So, that’s why a strong Balanced Budget Amendment with protections in regard to taxation, and in regard to spending, and in regard to court interference is absolutely critical if we’re going to preserve the kind of a country and the kind of constitutional republic that we have at the present time,” said Meese.

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