Senator Lee on the Balanced Budget Amendment

by Ramesh Ponnuru

I spoke this afternoon to Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) about his push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. First, I asked him about how this amendment would be enforced. The primary way, he said, was “self-enforcement,” on the theory that congressmen would find it hard to ignore a clear, explicit constitutional command. But he did not rule out judicial enforcement in cases of “reckless disregard” of the Constitution by Congress. He declined to speculate about what form that would take, since the answer would in his view depend on the particulars of the hypothetical scenario.

Senator Lee suggested that it would not make sense to trade an increase in the debt limit for a vote on the amendment; he seems optimistic about getting a vote without any such deal.

He says he appreciates what House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan is trying to do, but says that his plan is, “by itself, insufficient.” I asked him what he made of the way Democrats have set his proposal against Ryan’s by noting that the latter would be unconstitutional under his amendment. The fact that the people making this point are against both proposals, he said, suggested that what they really favor is today’s uncontrolled spending. From the president, he added more than once, there has only been “radio silence” about reining in entitlement spending.

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