The Perils of a Balanced Budget Amendment

July 19th, 2011



This piece was originally posted on The Huffington Post.

It’s baaaack! This week, Congress will vote, yet again, on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

A two-thirds majority in each house of Congress is required to amend the Constitution. Since 1980, Congress has voted on a balanced budget amendment five times. The closest it has come to passage was in 1995, when it passed the House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate by one vote.

The American public has long supported a balanced budget amendment. Why? It’s common sense. If you keep on spending more money than you take in, you’re headed for trouble. Every state except Vermont has some sort of requirement that its budget be balanced.

Conservatives see a balanced budget amendment as a way to institutionalize their agenda. Once the amendment is in place, it will become extremely difficult — literally unconstitutional — for the federal government to increase spending beyond revenues.

The amendment would mandate precisely the kinds of spending cuts that are so politically controversial that supporters of the amendment are unwilling to spell them out. Once the amendment is ratified, however, politicians would presumably be able to argue that they have no choice but to cut Medicare and Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Angry constituents would, of course, understand and forgive. The Constitution must be obeyed!

In the words of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, “Ha, ha, ha. And I might add, ho, ho, ho.”

One reason to oppose a balanced budget amendment is that it would work. The amendment now before Congress would require a two-thirds supermajority to raise taxes. Which means almost all the burden would be placed on spending. It would require deep spending cuts in popular programs like health care, education and national defense.

What about an economic emergency like the recent financial crisis? The amendment would require a two-thirds supermajority to run a deficit in any year. That gives a minority veto power over both spending and tax increases. As long as Republicans hold as few as one third of the seats in either the House or Senate, they would have the power to block both taxes and spending.

That’s called minority rule. It makes sense that a minority should have the ability to veto a constitutional amendment. But not ordinary legislation.

President Bill Clinton called the balanced budget amendment “a recipe for total paralysis.” Want to see what paralysis looks like? Look at California, where until this year, a two-thirds majority was required to pass a budget. The result? Perpetual budget gridlock, with the minority Republicans able and willing to block all economic legislation. Only this year, when the supermajority rule was lifted by popular initiative, did California pass a budget on time.

Another reason to oppose the balanced budget amendment is that it would not work. Congress would just come up with accounting tricks — “blue smoke and mirrors” — that would make the budget appear balanced. The kinds of gimmicks that many state governments have already mastered. It would feed public cynicism and degrade the Constitution.

A balanced budget amendment could also get federal judges involved in the budgetary process for the first time. That is a responsibility most judges don’t want. It would be possible to sue the federal government for failing to balance the budget. Courts could order tax hikes and spending cuts as a legal remedy. The amendment would throw the balance between the three branches of government out of whack.

A political agenda should be advanced through the political process – campaigns, policy initiatives and legislation. A political agenda should not be enshrined in the Constitution. The most likely consequence would not be to put budgetary issues “above politics.” It would be to endanger the consensus that puts the Constitution above politics.

When asked about the balanced budget amendment last week, President Obama said, “We don’t need a constitutional amendment to do our jobs. The Constitution already tells us to do our jobs.” But the President has no role in amending the Constitution. He doesn’t sign or veto anything. Once the amendment is passed by Congress, it goes directly to the states. It must then be ratified by 38 state legislatures in order to become part of the Constitution. If this amendment passes Congress, it would sail through the state legislatures in record time. Remember, almost all of them already have laws requiring their own balanced budgets.

The balanced budget vote is a contest between popular common sense and the informed opinion of the establishment. If you’re a politician, you don’t want to argue with common sense. In the closing Senate debate on a balanced budget amendment in 1994, Democratic leader George Mitchell said, “I understand the fear some have of taking any action contrary to prevailing public opinion. If this were a secret ballot, this amendment would not get a majority.”

That was true in 1994. And it is still true.