Friday, November 18, 2011

The Balanced Budget Amendment That Isn’t About Balancing the Budget

OMB Watch

In a move hearkening back to the Clinton era, Senate Republicans introduced a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution earlier today. All 47 members of the caucus are cosponsoring the bill, a strong show of force. But here’s the thing: this balanced budget amendment isn’t about balancing the budget.

For sure, the amendment would balance the budget. Indeed, it requires a two-thirds vote of both houses in order for outlays to exceed revenues. But it isn’t as if Congress is unable to balance the budget now. If Congress wanted to balance the budget, it would balance the budget. In fact, it has a chance to do so right now, since Congress is still debating the FY 2011 budget, despite the fiscal year having started six months ago. But I don’t see anyone arguing for this year’s budget to be balanced.

The Senate Republicans’ amendment goes far beyond just balancing the budget. The amendment also caps government spending at just 18 percent of gross domestic product, makes it harder to raise the debt ceiling, and requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. It even reaches beyond just the legislative branch, forbidding the courts from ordering increased revenues.

None of these added provisions have anything to do with balancing the budget, but they are central parts of the conservative agenda. And the provisions will make it hard for Congress to function even in times of relative economic normalcy. Imagine if our current House of Representatives needed a two-thirds margin to raise the debt ceiling. It just wouldn’t happen. And the budget would still be unbalanced.

In times of crisis, it will be almost impossible for the government to respond under this balanced budget amendment. The federal government is the only entity in the nation able to counteract economic downswings, thanks to its ability to spend beyond its means. Without deficit spending, its power would be curtailed.

Despite Congressional Republicans saying otherwise, a wide-margin of economists agree that the Recovery Act helped prevent an even worse recession, or possibly another depression. But under the amendment, deficit-financed stimulus bills would be impossible and automatic stabilizers such as unemployment insurance and food stamps would see limits.

In other words, sometimes an unbalanced budget is fiscally responsible. But this amendment’s sponsors, the entire Senate Republican caucus, aren’t particularly concerned about fiscal responsibility. After all, almost all of them have signed a pledge stating that they will not raise any taxes, ever, even though it is entirely responsible to raise taxes in order to fully fund our national priorities, like food safety and education.

Because of the amendment’s false aura of fiscal responsibility, it’s important to keep an eye on it. Congress almost passed a balanced budget amendment in the late 1990s. In fact, it only failed by one vote in the Senate. We can only hope it doesn't come that close in the current Congress.

For more information on just how bad balanced budget amendment actually are, check out our recent Watcher on the topic.

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