Debt that took years to accumulate does not disappear overnight. In 1978, Ronald Reagan was an ex-governor and the people of California were trying to find ways to replace revenue lost as a result of Proposition 13.
In response to angry demands simply to eliminate 10 to 25 percent of state jobs across the board, Reagan suggested a more compassionate solution. Rather than mass layoffs, he advocated reducing government payrolls through attrition, instituting a hiring freeze on replacement of workers who retired or left government service.
Reagan’s attitude toward balancing the federal budget was similar to his attitude toward balancing the California budget after passage of Proposition 13. “Over the years, growth in government and deficit spending have been built into our system. Now, it’d be nice if we could just cut that out of our system with a single, sharp slice. That, however, can’t be done without bringing great hardship down on many of our less fortunate neighbors who are not in a position to provide for themselves. And none of us wants that.”
All of this goes to explain why Reagan supported the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. This would entail weighing the entire federal budget against estimated revenues — a nearly impossible task. Nonetheless, Reagan threw his support behind a balanced budget amendment.
Another remedy Reagan supported was the line-item veto, the executive power to cancel specific budget appropriations without vetoing the entire spending bill. Reagan asked for line-item veto power in his 1986 annual message: “Give me a line-item veto this year. Give me the authority to veto waste, and I’ll take the responsibility, I’ll make the cuts, I’ll take the heat. This authority would not give me any monopoly power, but simply prevent spending measures from sneaking through that could not pass on their own merit. And you can sustain or override my veto; that’s the way the system should work.”
Bill Clinton also asked for the line-item veto in his 1995 annual message: “For years, Congress concealed in the budget scores of pet spending projects. Last year was no different. There was $1 million to study stress in plants and $12 million for a tick removal program that didn’t work. It’s hard to remove ticks. Those of us who have had them know. But I’ll tell you something, if you’ll give me line-item veto, I’ll remove some of that unnecessary spending.”
For a while, Clinton had line-item veto power until the courts (including the Supreme Court) declared it an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers clause.
As Reagan said, debt that took years to accumulate does not disappear overnight. Perhaps a line-item veto amendment, rather than a balanced budget amendment, is a way out of the crisis.
Jack Godwin is the author of "Clintonomics: How Bill Clinton Reengineered the Reagan Revolution."
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