Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Balanced Budget Amendment: No

The budget battle today is marked by two plans being discussed by the Republicans: the ‘cut, cap and balance’ plan proffered by Speaker Boehner and Representative Cantor; the other is from Senate Minority Leader McConnell, which involves a trade-off between reducing spending and raising the debt limit.  President Obama and the Democrats, however, are offering . . . nothing.  Well, not since Obama offered his absurd budget proposal back in February, which was voted down in the Senate by an astoundingly bipartisan and overwhelming 97-0.  Congressional Democrats have not made a single budget proposal since 3 April 2009, over 27 months ago.

The Democrats are choosing to wait this one out in a sitzkrieg, other than lobbing in some political artillery with the press as forward observers.  The resulting Republican plans are being hammered out amongst themselves, but one part of the contending plans that stands out is the inclusion of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.  If you ask me, I say ‘no’, and Rich Lowery of National Review explains it well:
The Constitution is meant to set out the basic rules of the road for American governance.  It’s not an appropriate vehicle for enshrining transitory or controversial policy preferences.  This is what the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition did, and so ensured widespread defiance of the nation’s foundational law. 
A balanced-budget amendment could befall the same fate at the hands of the fiscal bootleggers of Congress.  Even House Republicans voted for a budget that doesn’t balance the federal books until roughly 2030.  It’s easy to imagine Congress playing definitional games to evade the strictures of the amendment, inevitably inviting lawsuits. . . . 
The Republican amendment acknowledges there are circumstances when the budget shouldn’t necessarily be balanced.  It allows for a waiver in fiscal years in which a declaration of war against a nation-state is in effect. . . .  
We haven’t declared war on anyone since World War II.  The amendment’s exception wouldn’t have accounted for the Cold War or the War on Terror, neither of which entailed declarations of war on nation-states. 
Another provision allows three-fifths of Congress to waive the amendment for expenditures related to a military conflict “that causes an imminent and serious threat to national security.” If you believe the Cold War or the War on Terror qualifies, this could have led to constant exceptions from 1947 to 1991, and from 2001 to perhaps the present. 
A requirement to balance the budget does not mean lower budgets, only that we have to take in enough money to cover spending.  And just like supply and demand, it could mean lower spending or higher taxes.  As I explained before, Democrats will typically seek cost reduction by taking it out of the hide of the military.  The Pentagon has seen nothing of the stimulus spending spree, but the military will have to cut back drastically to compensate – a national security version of bait and switch.

In this respect, this is much like the call for term limits on politicians: we already have term limits – it is called ‘get off your ass and vote’.  We do not need a balanced budget amendment to get our spending under control.  We need the political will to do so.

. . . we have been writing since at least the 1995 vote on a balanced budget amendment that we do not believe this mechanism can achieve its desired result.  Its effects may even prove perverse.  We see no reason to change that view now. . . .  
Nor is it clear that the amendment could avoid unintended consequences.  In the current fight over spending and the debt, the GOP Congressional leadership has worked well to protect the defense budget from a President who constantly cites the need to cut it.  But under a mandated need to balance spending, the inevitable horse-trading would likely default to cutting defense while ducking fights on domestic programs.
The Senate and House versions both contain waivers in times of military conflict, but these are fraught with problems.  The supermajority requirement for taxes is waived if a "declaration of war" is in effect, or if a majority votes to support spending for a conflict "which causes an imminent and serious military threat" as described in a joint resolution of Congress.  Sounds complicated.  Would Ronald Reagan's spending that did so much to end the Cold War have survived these hurdles? . . .
The BBA's [Balanced Budget Amendment] supporters are right that the U.S. is riding a runaway entitlement train.  That train, however, is the product of politics, and politics is the way it will have to be stopped.  The main political impact of the BBA, however, will be to give "moderate" Senate Democrats up for re-election next year a chance to enhance their prospects by voting "for" spending control they don't believe in.

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