Fiscal federalism: US history for architects of Europe’s fiscal union
By C. Randall Henning (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Martin Kessler (email@example.com)
Abstract: European debates over reform of the fiscal governance of the euro area frequently reference fiscal federalism in the United States. The “fiscal compact” agreed by the European Council during 2011 provided for the introduction of, among other things, constitutional rules or framework laws known as “debt brakes” in the member states of the euro area. In light of the compact and proposals for deeper fiscal union, we review US fiscal federalism from Alexander Hamilton to the present. We note that within the US system the states are “sovereign”: The federal government does not mandate balanced budgets nor, since the 1840s, does it bail out states in fiscal trouble. States adopted balanced budget rules of varying strength during the nineteenth century and these rules limit debt accumulation. Before introducing debt brakes for euro area member states, however, Europeans should consider three important caveats. First, debt brakes are likely to be more durable and effective when “owned” locally rather than mandated centrally. Second, maintaining a capacity for countercyclical macroeconomic stabilization is essential. Balanced budget rules have been viable in the US states because the federal government has a broad set of fiscal powers, including countercyclical fiscal action. Finally, because debt brakes threaten to collide with bank rescues, the euro area should unify bank regulation and create a common fiscal pool for restructuring the banking system.
Review by: Manuel Bautista González
This paper was included in the NEP-HIS report issued on January 18th, 2012, through it C. Randall Henning and Martin Kessler contribute to the debate on fiscal solutions to the current European debt crisis. This by offering insights drawn from the past and present of U. S. fiscal federalism.
Henning and Kessler periodize their historical overview in five moments, namely, the financial reforms enacted after the adoption of the U. S. constitution, the state defaults of the 1840s, the financial troubles of state and local levels during the Reconstruction period, the fiscal instability during the Great Depression, and some recent experiences of state and local troubles from the 1970s to the current economic recession.
Later, in the analytical section of the paper, the authors study the probable adoption of balanced budget rules in the European Union with regards to their political enactment, their diversity across the Union and their effectiveness in preventing fiscal disarray. Henning and Kessler assess the need for (federal) countercyclical policies that complement the procyclical fiscal discipline at the state and local levels. They also review the literature on the relationship between state and local debt and capital and banking markets and offer preliminary conclusions relevant to both policymakers and scholars of monetary unions and fiscal federalism.