Academic journal article Policy Review

The Case for Supermajority Rules

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Case for Supermajority Rules

Article excerpt

THIS CENTURY ENDS, as it began, with extraordinary ferment about the soundness of our constitutional structures. In a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has appeared to revive doctrines of federalism and carve out spheres of autonomy for the states. In Congress, each house gave majority support to serious constitutional amendments setting term limits, requiring balanced budgets, and limiting tax increases. In fact, the Balanced Budget Amendment came within one vote of being sent to the states for ratification. Congress has also passed rules to restructure the federal legislative process. In an attempt to promote accountability and protect the autonomy of the states, both houses have required separate votes on unfunded mandates. The House of Representatives has passed a rule requiring a three-fifths majority to raise income tax rates.

Whatever they may signify individually, all these initiatives reflect a dissatisfaction with the continuing growth of the federal government. For despite President Clinton's declaration that the era of big government is over, the national government is as imperial and imperious as at any time in the nation's history. It spends 17 times the percentage of the nation's income as it did in 1910, and it takes a greater percentage of citizens' income in taxes than it has in peacetime ever before. The nature of federal spending has been transformed as well. Whereas in the early part of this century the budget focused on public goods, like national defense and infrastructure, that benefited everyone, today it is largely composed of transfer payments that enrich some citizens at the expense of the others. As the federal government has become ever more a dynamo for the satisfaction of private interests, a government designed for the energetic pursuit of the public purpose has been transformed into the special interest state.

Recently, some scholars and other observers have come to believe that excessive government spending is no longer a problem, because we now enjoy a surplus. Yet today's favorable fiscal situation, we submit, is adventitious and temporary. The government surplus is the result of a vibrant economy, peace, and the full employment of the baby boom generation, none of which will last forever. Indeed, as the baby boomers retire during the next 20 years, government spending obligations will grow tremendously. The most realistic projections (not the pessimistic ones) predict that by 2020, the cost of Social Security and government health care programs for the elderly alone will require payroll taxes approaching 30 percent. This bill coming due makes it all the more imperative that we focus on our fiscal Constitution right now. Today is when we should be reconstituting the government to avoid the upcoming crisis -- not tomorrow, with the crisis already upon us.

Today's bloated federal government is a legacy of yesterday's enthusiasm for collectivist solutions to social problems. While the United States suffered less than many other nations in this century from this worldwide delusion, the fervor for intrusive social reform -- one directed not only from the left, but also from the political center -- has left a mark on our original charter. In the course of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, federalism and the separation of powers were so effectively weakened that the federal government came to possess plenary powers of spending and regulation. As the failures of such federal intervention have become more apparent, political attention, particularly but not only on the right, has naturally shifted to recreating an architecture for government that will discourage such excesses in the future. What we need are constitutive structures that make it easier to apply what we have learned in this century: to employ market-based and community solutions to social problems wherever possible and to deploy the heavy hand of the central authority only as a last resort. …

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