McConnell touts BBA, forgets the 1990s

We’re facing a jobs crisis, weak economic growth, and the prospect of voluntarily default, created entirely by congressional Republicans, in less than three weeks.

With this in mind, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor this morning to talk about what he considers to be really important: a constitutional amendment that has no chance of being ratified.

“The time has come for a balanced budget amendment that forces Washington to balance its books. If these debt negotiations have convinced us of anything, it’s that we can’t leave it to politicians in Washington to make the difficult decisions that they need to get our fiscal house in order. The balanced budget amendment will do that for them. Now is the moment. No more games. No more gimmicks. The Constitution must be amended to keep the government in check. We’ve tried persuasion. We’ve tried negotiations. We’re tried elections. Nothing has worked.”

What a beautiful summary of a spectacularly dumb idea.

McConnell’s pitch is beautiful in its own way. He’s come to believe that policymakers — including, apparently, himself — are no longer trustworthy with public resources. To prevent irresponsible politicians from doing what they want to do, McConnell wants a constitutional straightjacket. That McConnell decried gimmicks while touting a gimmick was just the cherry on top of an inane sundae.

Now, this would ordinarily be about the time that I mention that the balanced budget amendment is easily the worst proposed amendment since Prohibition, and has accurately been described as a “pathetic joke.” I might also note that this version of the BBA is actually worse than the old one.

But instead, I thought I’d focus on one specific part of McConnell’s pitch: the notion that “nothing has worked.”

If McConnell were right about this, we could at least have a reasonable conversation about the constitutional merits of his idea. In other words, if policymakers really had tried everything to close the budget gap, and every idea failed, leading to deficits that only went in one direction, it’d at least be the basis for a coherent debate.

But here’s the part McConnell doesn’t remember: the 1990s.

It really wasn’t that long ago — McConnell was in the Senate at the time — that the deficit didn’t exist. When Bill Clinton left office a decade ago, we not only had a large surplus, we were paying off the national debt for the first time in a generation. Those debt clocks we occasionally see? They had to be shut down — no one had ever programmed them to run backwards.

We were on track to eliminate the national debt in its entirety within just 10 years. Republicans of the Bush era — including a guy by the name of Mitch McConnell — reversed course, created huge deficits, and added several trillion dollars to the debt.

The point, though, isn’t just about blame, it’s about reminding McConnell of recent history. He’s certain that “nothing has worked,” but reality shows otherwise.