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Balancing Budgets: From Reagan To TodayBalancing-Budgets-From-Reagan-To-Today

  • Subject: Economics
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The concept of a balanced federal budget has attracted much attention from the 1980s through today.
2. Citizens, politicians, and interest groups have considered various approaches to balancing the federal budget.


For this lesson, you will need:
Computer with Internet access
Books, articles, and editorials (covering the period from the 1980s to today) on balancing the federal budget
Index cards for note taking


1. Explain that the issues of a budget deficit and a balanced budget, given such celebrity during the Reagan administration, dominated presidential politics for years afterward as well. Bring students up-to-date by telling them that the 1990s saw movements in favor of (1) a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and (2) a balanced budget act. Make clear that the idea of an amendment did not gain sufficient support but that Congress did pass and President Clinton did sign the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
In this two-part assignment, students will first investigate arguments for and against a balanced budget amendment and a balanced budget act and then participate in a debate on the two methods to balance the federal budget.
2. Assign students to groups in which they will conduct research, with each member checking different resources. In the debate, later in this activity, half of the groups will support the idea of a balanced budget amendment, and the other half will support the idea of a balanced budget act. During the research phase, students should not know which approach to balancing the budget they will be asked to argue. That is, they should collect arguments in favor of and against both approaches to balancing the budget.
Have students use print and Web resources for their research. They may share strategies for locating resources.
3. Direct students, working in their groups, to find answers to the questions listed below. Suggest that students use index cards to take notes from research materials about making out-of-balance budgets illegal. When they come across an opinion or argument in favor of or against the amendment or the legislative act, they should write that opinion or argument on a note card and identify the source of the opinion or argument. Tell students to keep index cards in support of an amendment in one pile and cards in opposition to an amendment or in favor of a legislative act in another pile.
Here are some of the questions students should research individually and then share responses to with other members of their group:
  1. What's involved in adding an amendment to the Constitution and then, if necessary, in deleting the amendment?
  2. What's involved in proposing, voting on, and implementing a new federal law and then, if necessary, overturning the law?
  3. What's the difference, if any, between the force of an amendment to the Constitution and a law passed by Congress and signed by the president?
  4. Which groups favored balancing the budget by force of an amendment, and which groups favored balancing the budget by force of a congressional act? Why did these groups take the stands they did?
4. When their research in print and Web sources is complete, students may want to go to friends and relatives to solicit opinions about the need for a balanced federal budget.
5. After students have finished collecting arguments for and against amending the Constitution and for and against passing a congressional act, review with them the following points regarding the nature of a debate:
  • Debaters on each side will alternate presenting arguments to support their case.
  • After all students on both sides have spoken, any member of the group may offer arguments in rebuttal, or in opposition, to the argument made by a debater on the opposite side. The side that has been rebutted gets another chance to defend its position.
  • At the end of the debate, one person from each side will present a summary of that side's argument.
  • After the summaries, each member of the audience will vote for the side he or she thinks has presented the most convincing argument.
6. Pair groups, and tell them which group will argue for the amendment approach and which group will argue for the act approach. Give each side time to review its notes and determine what specifics each person on that side will present to the audience and who will present the summary.
7. Allow time for each pair of groups to debate each other and for the audience to vote.
8. Lead a class discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of students' research and debates.

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Instead of assigning research and debates, present as simply as possible the arguments that surfaced in favor of and against a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Explain why it was easier to pass a congressional act than an amendment on this topic. Encourage class discussion about facts and opinions cited by those for and against an amendment and for and against an act by Congress.

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Discussion Questions

1. What is the positive and negative legacy of the Reagan years on the budget? Was the Reagan plan justified? Explain your answer.
2. Did President Reagan's staff serve him well in the fight over his proposals? What is the duty of a staff member when he either disagrees with the president or believes the president has proposals that cannot be supported?
3. Should the government be allowed to run a budget deficit? What are the pluses and minuses of spending more than we take in taxes? Are there certain things that we should overspend for and certain things we should not?
4. When President Reagan announced that the federal budget was out of control, what did he mean by that? Can the budget be "out of control?" Was it?
5. Why was there renewed public support for President Reagan after he was shot? How did sympathy transfer to support for his policies? Discuss what this change in attitude says about American public opinion.
6. Discuss the tactics President Reagan used in courting conservative democrats and in appealing over Congress directly to the voters to get his programs passed. Are these valid ways of achieving policy goals? Is there anything unethical or improper about either of them? Explain your answer.
7. Was it realistic for President Reagan to believe that he could cut taxes and increase defense spending? Why did he think this was possible?
8. What sort of appeals did President Reagan use when addressing the public? Discuss the effectiveness of his style, word choice and tactics.
9. Discuss how accurately this film portrays President Reagan. Can you find any biases in the film either for or against him?

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You can evaluate your students on their group's performance using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: substantial facts; well-organized presentation; logical, persuasive arguments
Two points: more research needed; well-organized presentation; clear arguments
One point: few facts; disorganized presentation; weak arguments
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how many facts should be required and what constitutes a well-organized presentation.

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The Meaning of Balancing
Make sure students understand the fundamentals of what we mean by balanced budget. Ask them to research the general categories of expenditures and the general categories of income in the federal budget.

Speaking in Style
President Reagan, who did so much to put the issue of unbalanced budgets before the American people, was considered a master of communication. Have students analyze President Reagan's style as captured on videotape. They should make a list of the words, phrases, and rhetorical strategies he used to get his message across. Then they should compare and contrast President Reagan's speaking style to that of another recent or the current president. In general, how important is it for a president to be able to sway the public? Why?

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Suggested Readings

"The Turn of the Cycle"
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., New Yorker, November 16, 1992
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one of America's best-known historians, examines Reaganism and the 1980s on a global level and illuminates the mood and sentiments that made Reagan so popular and that eventually made his political successors unpopular.

Ronald Reagan
Renee Schwartzberg, Chelsea House, 1991
Reagan's finesse with media, which extended from his career as actor to his career as president, is covered in the extensive photographs and quotes in this biography, which is targeted towards young people.

Ronald Reagan
George Sullivan, J. Messner, 1991
The entire life of the fortieth president, including his childhood, acting career, and political careers at both the state and federal levels, is detailed for young readers in a more scholarly biography than the Schwartzberg work (above).

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Statement on the Occasion of the Tenth Anniversary of the Strategic Defense Initiative
This site summarizes the progress of the Strategic Defense Initiative as of March 23rd, 1993, and features Reagan's call for public support of SDI.

Quick Facts: Ronald Reagan
A brief and factual summary of Reagan's life

The Presidents: Ronald Reagan
This is the official White House biography of Reagan, with links to information about the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/ContraMatters
Teachers and scholars interested in Iran-Contra will find this of great interest, since it offers the complete report from the independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh.

Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic DefenseInitiative
Originally prepared by the CIA, this document was later unclassified and is posted at this site, although some parts remain "secret" and are marked as such.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    revenue
Definition: The yield of sources of income (e.g., taxes) that a political unit (e.g., a nation or state) collects and receives into the treasury for public use.
Context: As soon as the press conference was over we knew we had to do something because we knew that we were going to have to have some revenues in order to keep that budget in any semblance of decent economics.

speaker    deficit
Definition: An excess of expenditure over revenue.
Context: I think to a man every one of us said, look, here is what these deficits were and they've been getting worse and worse and worse.

speaker    inflation
Definition: An increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services resulting in a continuing rise in the general price level.
Context: Inflation had continued to accelerate.

speaker    audit
Definition: A formal examination of an organization's or individual's accounts or financial situation.
Context: A few days ago I was presented with a report I'd asked for, a comprehensive audit, if you will, of our economic condition.

speaker    surpluses
Definition: The amount that remains when use or need is satisfied.
Context: By 1983 we will have a balanced budget and that will bring the end to inflation, and from then on we will be collecting surpluses which we can return to the people in more tax cuts that are needed.

speaker    expenditures
Definition: Spending; that which causes financial burden or outlay.
Context: They were not in favor, by in large, the Democratic leadership, of reducing government expenditures.

speaker    bipartisan
Definition: Involving members of two parties.
Context: I urge you to contact your senator and congressman and tell them of your support for this bipartisan proposal.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: U.S. history
Understands developments in foreign and domestic policies between the Nixon and Clinton presidencies.
Understands the major economic issues from the Reagan through the Clinton presidencies (i.e., the impact of Reagan's tax policies on the national economy; why labor unions declined in the Reagan-Bush era, the impact of recession and the growing national debt on the Bush and Clinton administration's domestic agendas).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how government is financed through taxation.
Understands the tensions that results from citizens' desire for government services and benefits and their unwillingness to pay taxes for them.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how government is financed through taxation.
Understands the equity of various kinds of taxes.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: civics
Understands the formation and implementation of public policy.
Knows the points at which citizens can monitor or influence the process of public policy formation.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: economics
Understands the roles government plays in the United States economy.
Understands that because government policies affect the distribution of scarce economic resources, the government has a major influence on the well-being of people, businesses and regions.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: economics
Understands basic concepts of United States fiscal policy and monetary policy.
Understands that fiscal policies and monetary policies are often a result of political factors as well as economic factors.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: economics
Understands how the Gross Domestic Product and inflation and deflation provide indications of the state of the economy.
Knows that there are various policy options available to combat inflation (e.g., monetary and fiscal policies, wage and price controls, antitrust actions, tax incentives, automatic adjustment mechanisms).

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Sandy and Jay Lamb, history and social studies teachers (respectively), Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Virginia.

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