In 1913 the 16th Amendment gave Congress the immense power to tax income but didn’t limit Congress’ ability to borrow against this stream of future revenues. Congress then passed the debt-limit law in 1917 to facilitate debt by ending the cumbersome practice of voting on each debt issue and rollover.
Paving the way to our $16 trillion national debt, Congress invented “mandatory” appropriations to fund entitlements. These allowed spending to take place year after year without Congress having to vote on it. This met the letter but not the spirit of the Constitution’s Article I, Section 9, which states that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” The result has been a pool of unaccountable spending that has grown to over half the annual budget—$2 trillion in 2012 out of $3.5 trillion in total outlays.
In 1974 the new congressional budget process removed the President’s impoundment authority to underspend the budget and established criminal penalties for underspending. Further facilitating government growth, it invented automatic debt-limit increases as part of the House budget and set up congressional voting rules that prevent consideration of the negative-growth impact of higher taxes and bigger government.
Malpass’ prescription to address the problem: “a true debt ceiling that forces spending restraint when debt exceeds the ceiling.”