University of Rochester

Bold Suggestion by Political Scientist Could Fix Federal Budget Mess

September 27, 2007

For years, legislators haven't obeyed the budget rules they've created for themselves. University of Rochester political scientist David M. Primo explains why in his forthcoming book and even offers a provocative way of handling the problem: a constitutional convention—the first since 1787.

To be published Oct. 1, Rules and Restraint: Government Spending and the Design of Institutions takes an in-depth look at the incentives legislators have to flout budget rules. Primo offers timely insight on government spending just weeks after former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan blasted President George W. Bush and Congress for a lack of fiscal discipline in his new memoir. Oct. 1 is also the day Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson expects the nation to hit the national debt limit, $8.965 trillion.

In his book, Primo offers an explanation for why legislators don't deal with the fiscal challenges facing the country. Losing future elections because they failed to bring home government funding is more motivating than the benefits the whole country could gain by sticking to a stricter budget and reforming programs like Social Security and Medicare. Primo points out in his book that some states have laws that prohibit that behavior.

"Unfortunately, immediate, short-term temptations override long-term goals," Primo said. "Members of Congress are just responding rationally to the re-election incentive."

Reforms have failed because they are rife with loopholes and often only apply to new spending, while old, already approved spending programs go unchecked. Some legislators are masters of manipulating—and even ignoring—legislative procedures when their own budgetary rules prove inconvenient.

But while the federal government has struggled with this problem for decades, Primo says many states haven't. In a study examining 30 years of state spending data, he found that states with strict balanced budget rules enforced by an elected state high court spend less than states without such rules in place.

This is evidence, Primo says in Rules and Restraint (University of Chicago Press, 216 pages $20), that the states should consider mounting a national constitutional convention. He says it would offer Americans a unique way to police the budget process.

A constitutional convention can be called by two-thirds of the states, and budget rules could be placed into the constitution if approved by three-quarters of them, Primo notes. Scholars have debated how such a convention would proceed and Primo calls for a careful consideration of the pros and cons of a convention.

Even if it never came to pass, the threat of a convention might prod Congress to enact meaningful budget reform.

Primo acknowledges that this solution may sound extreme, but also says most states have budget rules in their constitutions.

"This may seem like a radical step, but I would argue that these are radical times," he said.

Primo, assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, also authored The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy (Brookings Institution Press, 2003). That book examined governmental responses to plane crashes and was co-authored with Roger Cobb of Brown University.

Note to editors: Digital images of Primo and the book's cover, as well as review copies, are available by request. Please call (585) 275-2671 or send your request to