I have been fighting for federal fiscal responsibility for over 30 years. During that time, I have worn many hats, including as comptroller general of the United States, as a partner with Arthur Andersen and public trustee of Social Security and Medicare, as CEO of both the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Comeback America Initiative, as a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and as a member of the Defense Business Board and various non-profit boards and advisory groups.
Most recently, I have been working quietly with a small group of volunteers, mostly grandparents, fighting for passage of a federal Fiscal Responsibility Amendment (FRA). Many Americans do not realize there are two ways to achieve such an amendment under Article V of the Constitution. First, two-thirds of the House and Senate can propose such an amendment. Alternatively, two-thirds of the states (currently 34) can file applications for a convention to propose amendments. If this condition is met, the Constitution states that the Congress shall call for such a convention and set the date and place for it. Under both methods, three-quarters of the states (currently 38) must ratify any proposed amendment for it to become part of the Constitution.
Recent extensive research of state and federal records discovered that there were 39 active plenary and FRA-specific applications in 1979 and 40 in 1983 and yet Congress never called for a convention of states. There are two reasons for this failure of Congress to discharge its constitutional responsibility. First, Congress has never assigned the nation’s archivist the responsibility to receive, retain and count state petitions for a convention. Second, Congress would rather not have a convention of states because lawmakers do not want to lose power and no members would be guaranteed a seat at the convention. After all, conventions of states happen when the Congress fails to act!
Shockingly, since 1979, when the Congress first failed to act, total federal debt has risen from less than $1 trillion to over $30 trillion and the ratio of debt held by the public to GDP is approaching its highest level in history. Clearly, the debt ceiling and other statutory approaches have failed to ensure that Congress acts in a fiscally responsible and sustainable manner. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office projects that debt held by the public/GDP will exceed 200% in 2050 absent a change in course. Allowing this to happen will threaten our future economic security, national security and domestic tranquility over time.
Given the above, I and others are collaborating with selected members of Congress and several states to do four things.
- First, introduce legislation that will give the archivist the responsibility to receive, retain and count all Article V applications, and to notify the Congress when the two-thirds of states requirement is met.
- Second, introduce a concurrent resolution that, based on the above referenced accounting of applications, would require Congress to set the date and place for a convention of states unless the archivist certifies that the two-thirds of the states requirement has never been met.
- Third, develop a proposed constitutional amendment designed to limit the ratio of total debt held by the public to GDP (e.g., 125%) and to reduce it to a reasonable and sustainable level over a specified period of time (e.g., 90% by 2035)
- Finally, pursue a state-led mandamus case that would eventually be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court if Congress fails to call for a convention of states or pass its own Fiscal Responsibility Amendment.
History shows that Congress only acts to address major fiscal challenges when one of three things happen. First, a crisis may force action. We should seek to avoid one. Second, committed presidential leadership willing to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis. We have not had that since Bill Clinton. Finally, when public pressure comes from We the People.
In addition to a Fiscal Responsibility Amendment, we will need a statutory Fiscal Sustainability Commission to restore fiscal sanity. That commission must actively engage the American people with the facts and tough choices we face, solicit input on reforms and make a package of recommendations to Congress that will be guaranteed a vote.
The stakes for our country’s and families’ futures are extremely high. To help ensure that our legislators act, the time has come for a meaningful public education and engagement effort like prior Fiscal Wake-up and Solutions Tours, including the 2012 $10 Million a Minute Tour that was primarily funded by the late H. Ross Perot. The $10 Million a Minute Tour covered 10,000 miles and resulted in 77% to 97% agreement among representative groups of voters on a series of specific budget, tax, spending and other reforms that would achieve the above objectives.
The need is much greater today than in 2012. The time is now to save America’s future. I and others are willing to continue to donate our time to this important effort. Who will step up to meet the moment and fund the education and engagement effort?
David M. Walker is the former U.S. Comptroller General and author of “America in 2040: Still a Superpower?”