As we and other senior military and economic leaders have stated, the greatest threat to our national security is the growing national debt burden, a threat that has grown exponentially in the 21st century. At the end of the Cold War, the United States enjoyed a peace dividend, with defense spending declining as a proportion of gross domestic product. The federal budget was balanced, the economy grew dramatically, and total federal debt as a percentage of GDP fell from 119% in 1946 to 32% in 1980.
Over the past two decades, the federal government has increased spending faster than GDP growth and has financed much of this increased spending through borrowing. Total federal debt as a percentage of GDP has more than doubled from 55% in 2000 to 122%, and is expected to reach nearly 200% by mid-century.
The United States has become one of the most indebted countries in the world, and financial markets are signaling that this debt growth is unsustainable. Interest rates on US debt have risen sharply, and Asian and other countries that have been major buyers of this debt in the past have curbed their appetite. Some countries are also working together to reduce reliance on the dollar as a reserve currency. We are now experiencing stagflation, similar to that of the 1970s, but with a debt comparable to that contracted during the Second World War.
Congress has abandoned fiscal responsibility and we can no longer rely on elected officials to restore fiscal health and sustainability. The budget process is interrupted as elected officials frequently trade increased domestic spending for more defense spending and charge it to the country’s credit card. The debt ceiling has failed and other statutory fiscal rules have not stood the test of time. The challenge now is to design more effective fiscal rules to limit spending while giving elected officials the flexibility to respond to wars and other real emergencies.
Other countries, such as Switzerland, have enshrined effective fiscal rules in their constitutions. The Swiss “debt brake” was adopted as an amendment to their constitution through a citizens’ initiative with the support of 85% of their citizens. The “debt brake” has been in place for several decades and has enabled Switzerland to significantly reduce its debt as a percentage of GDP. A Swiss-style “debt brake” has also been introduced in other European countries and in the European Union.
The United States now has the opportunity to enact an effective fiscal rule in our Constitution. Representative Jodey Arrington, Republican of Texas, and other co-sponsors introduced UNHCR 101 calling for a convention of states under Article V to propose amendments. This legislation would require the nation’s archivist to store and count the many “fiscal responsibility amendments” that have been submitted over the years, and once the required number of nominations have been received, notify Congress that he must convene the convention. Recent research by the Congressional Record found that the required number of state petitions was met in 1979, but Congress took no action. A related bill in the Senate will soon be tabled.
In an October 7 New York Times column, Jamelle Bouie argues that the Constitution is the enemy of democracy. He states that “a constitution that subverts majority rule, fuels authoritarian movements, and renders popular sovereignty inert is not a constitution that can be said to protect, guarantee, or even enable American democracy.” Mr. Bouie and other critics fail to recognize that under Article IV, the Constitution guarantees us that the United States is a republic and a representative democracy, not a direct democracy. The Constitution grants rights to the federal government and the states for the benefit of the American people. It was a key and intentional decision by the founders of our nation.
Critics argue that a convention of states to propose amendments would “get away.” This is false and only serves to sanction the unsustainable status quo. The founders of our nation knew that they had not achieved everything either for their generation or for future generations. They anticipated that Congress might not act on critical national issues and incorporated into Article V the right of states to also propose amendments to help make our country a more perfect union.
We can no longer rely on Congress to put our nation’s finances in order. A convention of the states under Article V to propose a “fiscal responsibility amendment” to the Constitution is required to make the necessary correction. Failure to restore fiscal sustainability will have serious negative consequences for the economy, national security, and domestic tranquility over time.
• David M. Walker is the former Comptroller General of the United States. Retired Admiral Bill Owens is the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Along with University of Colorado Boulder Professor Emeritus Barry W. Poulson, they are the founders of the Federal Fiscal Sustainability Foundation.