Letter to Congressional Leaders on the Proposed Balanced Budget Amendment
Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. Leader:)
I write to express my firm opposition to the proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States (S.J. Res. 41 and H.J. Res. 103). While I am deeply committed to bringing down our Nation's deficit, this proposed balanced budget amendment would not serve that end. It would promote political gridlock and would endanger our economic recovery.
The Administration fought hard to pass a historic deficit reduction plan because we believe that deficit reduction is an essential component of a national economic growth strategy. As you know, I worked tirelessly with the Congress to gain passage of the largest deficit reduction package in the Nation's history. This legislation includes a "hard freeze" on all discretionary spending, a virtually unprecedented constraint on Federal spending. Through the National Performance Review, a new rescission package, and a major proposal to limit the growth of Medicare and Medicaid through comprehensive health care reform, we are taking continuing steps to keep the deficit on a downward path. I have also long supported such procedural innovations as enhanced rescission authority or a line-item veto and would consider workable budget proposals that distinguish between consumption and investment. The Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform will come forward with suggestions on controlling entitlement costs and other serious budget reforms. Thoughtful, specific reforms are better policy than a rigid Constitutional amendment.
The balanced budget amendment is, in the first place, bad economics. As you know, the Federal deficit depends not just on Congressional decisions, but also on the state of the economy. In particular, the deficit increases automatically whenever the economy weakens. If we try to break this automatic linkage by a Constitutional amendment, we will have to raise taxes and cut expenditures whenever the economy is weak. That not only risks turning minor downturns into serious recessions, but would make recovery from recession far more difficult. Let's be clear: This is not a matter of abstract economic theory. Contractionary fiscal policy in the 1930s helped turn an economic slowdown into a Great Depression. A balanced budget amendment could threaten the livelihoods of millions of Americans. I cannot put them in such peril.
Moreover, at presently anticipated growth rates, the deficit reduction required by this amendment could be harmful to average hardworking American families. Supporters of this amendment must be straight with the American people. Given the current outlook for the FY 1999 budget, the amendment would require some combination of the following: huge increases in taxes on working families; massive reductions in Social Security benefits for middle class Americans; and major cuts in Medicare and Medicaid that would make it impossible to pass meaningful health reform legislation. This latter result would be particularly ironic and counterproductive because comprehensive health reform is our best hope not only for providing health security for all Americans, but also for bringing down the long-term structural deficit. The fact that these consequences will not be clear to most Americans for a few years does not relieve us of the responsibility of facing them today.
We must reject the temptation to use any budget gimmicks to hide from the specific choices that are needed for long-term economic renewal. The amendment by itself would not reduce the deficit by a single penny. The only way we can continue to make progress on bringing down the deficit while investing more in our future is to continue the process of making tough and specific policy choices. If we avoid such straightforward debate now, the likely outcome will be accounting subterfuge and gimmicks when the easy promise of a balanced budget amendment runs up against difficult political realities. A gridlocked Congress would encourage members to look for an easy way out— for example, by moving more Federal programs off budget or by imposing more unfunded mandates on the States. Ironically, the amendment might encourage less rather than more fiscal responsibility.
The amendment's potential impact on our constitutional system is as troublesome as its effect on the economy. The proposed amendments are so vague and complex that budgets quickly could be thrown into the courts to be written by appointed judges with life tenure, rather than the people's elected officials in the Congress. Surely, we can do better than this.
Finally, I believe that economic and budgetary decisions should distinguish between investment and consumption. Those who manage a family budget know that there is a fundamental difference between spending money on a lavish meal, and paying the mortgage on a home that is an investment in one's future economic security. Under this balanced budget amendment, there is no distinction between cutting a dollar in waste and a dollar in a valuable investment in technology that could make us a richer and more competitive Nation in the future. That is unacceptable to me. We need to find ways to reduce the deficit and increase investment in ways that enhance not undermine the economic security and potential of our people and their communities. We must bring down the budget deficit at the same time we make progress on bringing down the investment deficit through investments in those who helped us win the cold war, through more resources to fight drugs and crime, and by giving all Americans the opportunity for quality education and training throughout their lifetimes.
I remain firmly committed to the goal of deficit reduction. But I am just as firmly opposed to this balanced budget amendment, because it would simply delay honest debate over the hard choices needed for long-term economic growth and could imperil the economic stability of the Nation and our fledgling recovery.
NOTE: Identical letters were sent to Thomas S. Foley, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and George J. Mitchell, Senate majority leader.
William J. Clinton, Letter to Congressional Leaders on the Proposed Balanced Budget Amendment Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/217957