The Balanced Budget Amendment Delusion

Conservatives seem to think that the most important feature that any debt-ceiling deal could contain is a promise to schedule a Congressional vote on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget of the federal government. This view baffles me completely.

The fundamental premise of the BBA is that it’s easier to get the Congress to vote to approve an amendment to the Constitution than to get it to simply pass a budget that limits spending to the amount of tax revenue collected in any particular year. Does this make any logical sense at all? Sadly, yes, if–and only if–it is the case that:

1. The Congress believes itself to be incapable of enacting a balanced budget as part of the normal legislative process—not now, not in the time it will take to ratify a BBA, not ever; and

2. the BBA will contain an enforcement mechanism sufficiently effective that it can induce the Congress to overcome the innate deficiencies described in item 1.

For conservatives to feel giddy about the prospect of a BBA, they must further believe that:

3. If the Congress is unable to balance the budget, the enforcement mechanism of the BBA will not trigger a Constitutional crisis, and

4. if the BBA kicks in, Congress will vote to balance the budget mostly through spending cuts.

There is no word other than “delusional” for anyone who believes item 4.

It’s great fun to jabber about wasteful government spending that takes the form of federally funded cowboy poetry slams, research into gay dick size, or bloated  salaries at NPR. But when it comes to arithmetic, attention must be paid. The hard fact about the federal government and the trajectory of its future spending is that the budget simply cannot be balanced without a complete overhaul of Social Security and Medicare. A Constitutional requirement of a balanced budget will not magically privatize Social Security or convert Medicare into a health-care voucher program. Only explicit legislation by the very future Congresses that apparently can’t be trusted to pass a balanced budget can enact these essential reforms. But a Congress that can complete those two monumentally difficult political tasks would find it comparatively simple to make sure that spending = revenue.

My advice to conservatives is not to waste any political effort on shepherding a BBA through their home-state legislatures. Instead, spend that effort–redoubled–on recruiting and electing candidates of integrity and intelligence who understand what must be done, and whose only reason for going to Washington is to get that job done.

If the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, then so too is the solution.

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