WASHINGTON — Washington. -- What's new? Not much. At least not in American political argument. Follow the thread of most current controversies back into American history and you reach arguments from the 1790s. Today's argument about a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget rekindles an argument that engaged Madison and Jefferson against Hamilton, as William Niskanen knows.
An economics professor before joining President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, Mr. Niskanen now is chairman of the Cato Institute and an advocate of "a new fiscal constitution." A balanced budget amendment would, he says, restore what was lost when America abandoned two linked understandings, one of the Constitution and one of fiscal morality.
During the nation's first 140 years, he says, government growth was restrained and budget discipline was maintained by a constitutional interpretation and an "informal rule." The interpretation was of Article I, Section 8's enumeration of Congress' powers. It said Congress could spend only to exercise powers specifically enumerated in Section 8.
Mr. Niskanen, in the Jeffersonian tradition, construes that section as empowering Congress to spend pursuant to "only 18 rather narrowly defined powers," few of which -- establishing post offices and post roads, raising an army and navy -- involve the potential for substantial expenditures. (President Jefferson, doubting the constitutionality of most public spending, reluctantly signed the national road bill but urged Congress to initiate a constitutional amendment authorizing such activities.) Strict construction of Section 8's enumerated powers accorded with the "informal rule" that government should borrow only during recessions and wars.
Mr. Niskanen's fidelity to the Madisonian notion of enumerated powers (one of Madison's last acts as president was to veto a roads and canals bill on the ground that "such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution") may seem of merely antiquarian interest. History has long since settled the constitutional question in the Hamiltonians' favor, with a permissive construction of the first of Section 8's clauses. That clause, which says Congress has the power to act for "the general welfare," has become a loophole large enough for Leviathan to stride through.
Still, Mr. Niskanen notes that as late as the Eisenhower administration there was rhetorical deference to the doctrine of enumerated powers. Thus when creating the Interstate Highway System, Congress called the legislation the National Defense Highway Transportation Act, a title linking the project to the enumerated power to "provide for the common defense." Similarly, the federal government's first major education program, providing loans for college students, was called the National Defense Education Act.
Nowadays government, unlimited by constitutional enumeration of its proper purposes, permeates life, and there is no longer even a nod toward the old idea of limited congressional powers to spend. The dissolution of political and constitutional restraints on Congress has been a boon to legislative careerists. They have a permanent vocational incentive to borrow to finance current expenditures, thereby pleasing current voters by passing burdens on to future voters.
There are two basic ways to limit a government that is based on popular sovereignty. One is by a constitution that authorizes government to exercise its powers by simple majority rule but enumerates only a narrow range of powers. The other way is to grant government a broad range of purposes, and all power necessary thereto, but to require supermajorities for particularly important decisions. Mr. Niskanen says that because we have abandoned strict construction of enumerated powers, the correct road back to the constitutional goal of limited government is an amendment requiring votes of two-thirds of the membership of both houses of Congress to raise the debt ceiling or to impose a new tax or raise an existing one.
The intellectual pedigree of Mr. Niskanen's argument underscores the unconvincing nature of most opposition to the amendment. Many opponents simply assert that "it won't work." But no one claims the current attempt to limit government is "working." And the most fervid opponents of the amendment (public employees organizations, lobbies for the elderly, cities and other grasping interests) are not fervid because they fear the amendment might be ineffectual. The intensity of their opposition testifies to their belief that the amendment would work too well to limit government.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.