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Borglum’s Wooden Nickel: Refer 5%+ Budget Increases to National Vote!

Borglum's debt reduction plan
Can we use this as voter ID?

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Scyller Borglum is offering something her primary opponent, incumbent Senator Marion Michael Rounds, has failed to produce in his five years in Washington: a plan to reduce the federal debt. Borglum’s “Wooden Nickel” plan—so named, it appears, because it involves the number 5 and because Borglum wants to allude to the imaginary money Rounds votes for to fund Il Duce‘s whims—would combine an arbitrary spending cap with a nationwide budget referendum:

The Wooden Nickel plan is simple. When elected, I will work relentlessly to pass legislation to ensure Congress stays within 5% of the previous year’s discretionary budget. If the budget comes in so much as .01% over the 5% cap then a national vote is automatically triggered. This empowers the people to decide if the increase is justified, and strips a little bit of power away from congress, which we know needs to happen [Scyller Borglum, press release, 2019.08.22].

The CBO projects FY2019 federal outlays will be 7.25% greater than last year’s. The CBO projects increases greater than 5% in four of the next ten years, but the average projected growth through FY2029 would be 4.93%. Hmm… is a 5% cap on budget growth enough to bend the curve?

The 5% threshold is simple—too simple, because arbitrary spending caps reduce the government’s ability to respond to emergencies that require deficit spending. I’d love to limit increases in my household spending to 5%, but when we find termites or someone goes to the hospital, we don’t call a family plebiscite; we call the bank, get a loan, take care of the problem, and pay it off with interest.

Wall Drug Wooden Nickel
I know one place where this plan will be popular….

The national vote is not simple. I love referenda and participatory budgeting, but Borglum is calling for a decision-making mechanism that does not exist and may require a Constitutional amendment to authorize voters to (a) vote on something other than the Presidency and (b) exercise appropriations power currently held exclusively by Congress (although the Supreme Court has ruled that Constitutional limitation irrelevant, so why not?). Congress would need to pass a budget months a head of time in order to allow states to print ballots and arrange for a budget vote. Since the fiscal year begins on October 1, we’d have to call a special election, even in even years, unless we’re willing to see more budgeting by continuing resolution.

Of course, it’s funny that Borglum is calling for more public voting, since she voted twice with most of her party in Pierre last winter for House Bill 1094, which severely curtails the ability of South Dakotans to put important matters to a vote. Borglum’s federal budget referendum proposal also contradicts South Dakota’s prohibition on referring any state appropriations to a statewide vote. Hmm… maybe Borglum will see the light, come visit the People Power Petition booths at the Central States Fair and the State Fair to promote grassroots democracy, and promise to offer legislation in Pierre first to reform South Dakota’s Legislatively besieged initiative and referendum process. More democracy starts at home, Representative Borglum!

Borglum isn’t selling Wooden Nickels yet in her new online campaign store, but maybe she’ll start handing out such budgetary tokens on the campaign trail.


  1. o 2019-08-23

    One question I have on the vote triggered by >5% increase: would the question be only the spending side of that equation, or would the revenue side of that equation be brought into question?

    I FAR more object to the policies of reduced taxation of the 1% (revenue) than the payments into the social safety net (spending).

    If we were not giving our corporate welfare queens a pass on contributing their fair share of support, budgets and deficits would not be such an issue.

  2. Debbo 2019-08-24

    Excellent point O. The corporate and rich welfare queens and kings are the biggest drag on the US economy. That’s why Scandanavian countries function better than us. They don’t allow corporate and wealthy welfare queens and kings.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-08-24

    Good question, O. We could cap increases in discretionary spending at 5%, but if Congress cut taxes 10% each year, we’d still have an increasing deficit and debt.

    Instead, we could require a national referendum on any deficit spending… but then there we go stopping the government from swiftly responding to a recession with a stimulus package, or a national security threat with emergency spending that breaks the balance.

    Perhaps we could put all tax measures to a public vote… but there again, we’d need to amend the Constitution.

    1. Article 1 Section 1 vests “All legislative Powers” in Congress. A referendum is the people legislating… unless you’d liek to argue that Congress an delegate is legislative Powers to the people via referendum.
    2. Article 1 Section 7 says that every bill passed by the House and Senate shall go to the President for signature or veto; it does not insert a veto by the people via referendum in that process.
    3. Article 1 Section 8 gives Congress the power to “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States,” “to borrow money,” and “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof,” with no provision for popular interference.

    We’ll need to change at least those three portions of the Constitution to permit a Wooden Nickel Referendum.

    Currently the Constitution provides one form of referendum: Under Article 5, Congress cannot amend the Constitution and must refer amendments, not to the people, but to the states.

    Constitutional amendments and the Presidency are the only two issues that are ever voted on nationwide, and neither of those matters is decided by a straight popular vote. Four Presidents—Hayes, Harrison, Bush, and Trump—have won office by coming in second in popular vote. Amendments are approved not by majority vote of all Americans but by three quarters of the state ratifying the amendments in their Legislatures or in conventions. Nowhere did the Founding Fathers provide for any direct popular vote that crosses state lines and guarantees that one citizen’s vote in one state is exactly equal in power to another citizen’s vote in another state.

    Again, I’m not saying a national popular vote would be a bad thing. I’m saying our Constitution does not allow it.

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