Radnor Reports - Sword of Damocles and our Congress
The media metaphor for such a penalty is the “Sword of Damocles,” which for the super-committee was supposed to be the automatic sequestration cuts that were part of last summer’s debt ceiling deal (Public Law 112-25). To the surprise of no one, these sequestration cuts are e ither a charade if Congress rescinds them before they take effect on January 2, 2013 or a joke even if President Obama follows through on his pledge to veto any rescission bills.
Still, the Sword of Damocles metaphor is apt when you consider what Damocles did after seeing the sword hanging above. According to legend, Damocles (think Congress) was a pandering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, who praised Dionysius for his great wealth and good fortune. Dionysius thereupon offered the throne to Damocles, who gladly accepted only to discover the sword pointed directly overhead and hanging by a single hair of horse tail. Damocles quickly decided that Dionysius was not so fortunate after all and hopped off the throne.
As told by Cicero, the moral is that no one can be happy living in constant fear, which Dionysius took to be the lot of any great leader. Congress no doubt concurs since it hops off the throne any time the sword (think actual budget cuts) is about to fall. For Dionysius, however, the fear was constant and could only be escaped by abdicating the throne, which he refused to do, just as Congress refuses to restrain its spending, much less abdicate its power of the purse. Congress though does not need to relinquish its spending power because the threat posed by the statutory “swords” listed above can always be removed by simply passing an overriding statute.
The only way Congress can be forced to live in constant fear of losing its spending power is by constitutional amendment, but any such amendment must contain a penalty - a true Sword of Damocles - that is genuinely feared. This is why the Balanced Budget Amendment that just failed in the House deserved to fail: it contained no penalty that would actually restrain the fiscal profligacy of Congress.
Such penalties do exist and here are three possibilities: (1) a Balanced Budget Veto Amendment that gives item veto power to the President whenever a fiscal year ends with a deficit; (2) a Balanced Budget Rotation Amendment that prohibits Members of Congress from running for re-election after five straight years of deficits; and (3) a Balanced Budget Pay-Cut Amendment that reduces Congressional pay by the same percentage of federal borrowing in the preceding fiscal year.
A Balanced Budget Veto is the most apt penalty (since it would also hold the President accountable for failing to use the item veto), and it would probably be sufficient as a stand-alone penalty given Congress’s severe jealousy over the power of the purse. Of course you will never see Congress adopt any of these measures precisely because Congress will never impose a genuine penalty on itself.
Under Article V of the Constitution, however, the states can impose this type of Sword of Damocles penalty on their own. With the collapse of the super-committee (and a budget deal unlikely to occur in a presidential election year), the door is now wide open for the states to succeed where our national leaders have failed.