In the fall of 1978, the United States Congress finally solved the federal government’s budget problems. While the Senate debated a bill making some technical revisions to the Bretton Woods Agreement, Virginia senator Harry Byrd, Jr., offered an amendment that read, in its entirety: “Beginning with fiscal year 1981, the total budget outlays of the Federal Government shall not exceed its receipts.” The amendment passed, and the bill was eventually signed into law.
The next year, in a bill increasing the debt ceiling, the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress again enacted essentially the same requirement for balanced budgets beginning in 1981. It did so again in 1980, and then in 1982 struck the reference to fiscal year 1981 but reiterated its “commitment” to balanced budgets. To this day, Title 31, Section 1103, of the United States Code reads: “Congress reaffirms its commitment that budget outlays of the United States Government for a fiscal year may be not more than the receipts of the Government for that year.”
Of course, in all but four of the 30 years since, the federal government has indeed spent more than it has taken in — running an average annual deficit of more than $340 billion (adjusted for inflation) and well over a trillion dollars in more recent years. The debt held by the public has grown by more than $10 trillion in that time. Not surprisingly, promising to be fiscally responsible in the future has done nothing to mitigate the government’s fiscal recklessness in the present.
And yet precisely that practice remains the essence of our fiscal policy today, as Congress and the president struggle to get the federal deficit under control. Now as then, their prayer is: Lord, make our budget sustainable — but not yet.
Our lawmakers contend that today’s budget mechanisms are more effective than Senator Byrd’s commitment to balanced budgets because they impose specific (if broad) spending cuts that will occur automatically unless Congress undoes them. There has been little recognition of the irony involved in continuing to make this argument even as lawmakers spent the past several months trying to avoid and then mitigate the consequences of a previously enacted mechanism of exactly the same sort: the sequester adopted as part of the 2011 debt-ceiling fight.
The automatic budget mechanism has long held Washington under its spell. But again and again it has disappointed, and for precisely the same reason that Byrd’s balanced-budget language was meaningless: As a people no less sovereign than we, future voters (and, more to the point, their representatives) may not feel obligated to respect decisions made in years gone by.
At first glance, this inability to bind the future — which political scientists call the “commitment problem” — would seem to preclude the very possibility of responsible representative government, at least on matters that require sustained discipline (such as the management of the public debt). If representatives today can always put off hard choices until tomorrow — and especially if their voting constituents want them to — it is hard to see how any sacrifices will ever be made. And yet we know that responsible choices are possible, because our predecessors often made them. Balanced budgets in peacetime were the norm for most of our country’s history until after the Second World War. Even in the aftermath of the New Deal and Great Society expansions, the polity has managed a few impressive moments of self-control — reining in runaway spending and reducing the growth of entitlement costs.
So why do most of our attempts to achieve such results through automatic budget mechanisms fail? And what has enabled those occasional fiscal successes? To answer these questions, we must first examine the automatic budget mechanisms employed over the past few decades, seeking to distinguish effective recipes for long-term balance from willful acts of self-delusion.