If Congress has trouble staying within constitutional bounds now, just wait until the Constitution mandates that it must balance the federal budget.
Republicans have made a late entry into the debt-ceiling debate with a push for adding such a requirement to the Constitution. The balanced-budget amendment is not only an implausible way out of the debt-ceiling dilemma — it’s unlikely to pass Congress with the necessary two-thirds vote to send it to the states — it risks doing the worst disservice to the Constitution since Prohibition.
The balanced-budget amendment came to prominence in the Contract With America back in the 1990s. It fell a vote short in the Senate and was soon forgotten — and deserved to be.
A simple balanced-budget amendment threatens Republican fiscal priorities; it would create even more pressure to raise taxes. A straightforward amendment recognizes no difference between balance at 24 percent of GDP and at 15 percent of GDP.
Realizing this, House Republicans have crafted a version that essentially mandates their favored fiscal policies. It requires that spending not exceed 18 percent of GDP and stipulates that only a two-thirds majority can raise taxes. Only modesty, presumably, prevented the amendment’s authors from spelling out budgetary levels for the Department of Health and Human Services.
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.
That the amendment would precipitate legal action is acknowledged in the amendment’s own language: “No court of the United States or of any State shall order any increase in revenue to enforce this article.” Judicial interventions in budgetary matters are, by implication, acceptable so long as they bring spending cuts. Let’s hope the federal courts are packed with judges favoring Medicare reform.
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. As a plot to get Nancy Pelosi to declare war on Switzerland or another handy inoffensive country, this is brilliant. Otherwise, it’s wholly inadequate.
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.
The impulse behind the amendment is certainly laudable — to attack the debt problem at its root. But a strictly balanced budget is not important enough to be written into the Constitution. The difference between balance and a small deficit is meaningless in the long run; it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of protecting free speech or ending slavery. We ran budget deficits from 1970 to 1997, and the republic survived.
The current threat to the country is historic deficits driven by historic levels of spending. Favoring the balanced-budget amendment does nothing to address those problems in the here and now. Realistically, building the coalition necessary to pass the amendment as envisioned by Republicans would take years, by which time it will be gloriously irrelevant or altogether too late.