WE’LL APPARENTLY HAVE TO DEBATE THE BBA ONCE AGAIN…. I’d really hoped we were past this nonsense.
Over three decades, Sen. Orrin Hatch has labored unsuccessfully for a Balanced Budget Amendment. The Senate last passed such a measure in 1982, only to be disappointed by a Democrat-controlled House. The tease hit its apex in 1997, when the Utahn cobbled together 66 votes — one aye short of the constitutional requirement. “Like Charlie Brown with the football, we kept trying,” he laments in his memoir.
With fiscal hawks roosting in both chambers, Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is itching for another round. This week, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), he will unveil a revamped proposal. The pair’s amendment will mandate the federal budget not to exceed total revenues, cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, and require a two-thirds vote (in both the House and the Senate) for net tax increases. The legislation will also require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress each fiscal year.
As the federal government nears its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a “great constitutional debate,” Hatch declares, is necessary. “Let’s put the screws on the big spenders,” he says.
Ah yes, those rascally “big spenders.” Who might that include? Perhaps we could nominate Orrin Hatch, who voted for measures adding $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years, and who later said he considered the better part of the last decade a period in which “it was standard practice not to pay for things.”
In other words, Orrin Hatch wants a constitutional amendment to tie the hands of people like … Orrin Hatch.
Perhaps more strikingly, his co-partner in this ridiculous initiative is John Cornyn, who wants to tie a balanced budget amendment to the hostage strategy for the federal debt limit — either Democrats agree to change the U.S. Constitution, or Cornyn and his pals will try to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States government.
As messengers go, Republicans like Hatch and Cornyn have absolutely no credibility on fiscal responsibility. They’re not only responsible for the budget mess, they demanded massive tax breaks last year that made the situation worse.
But putting the hypocrisy aside, there’s an important substantive argument here about the balanced budget amendment itself. The proposal is, as Bruce Bartlett recently explained, “a terrible idea.” His item on this is well worth reading — and bookmarking for future reference — and it hits nearly all of the highlights, including the fact that a BBA would undermine the economy and is probably unenforceable anyway.
But I’d just emphasize the fact that sometimes, running a deficit is both wise and necessary, and writing a prohibition into constitutional stone would tie policymakers’ hands at key moments of crisis. Proponents have said the language would made exceptions in which deficits would be allowed — wars, economic crises, etc. — but at that point, there’s no real point in having the amendment anyway.
For that matter, if Hatch, Cornyn, or any of the laughably insincere deficit hawks want a balanced budget, they can do us all a favor and present a plan on how to make that happen. That would take effort and intellectual honesty, so they take the easy way out — instead of doing the hard work, they want to trot out a gimmick that will mandate a policy goal they can’t figure out how to accomplish on their own.
In other words, those who want a balanced budget amendment should make plain how they’d balance the budget. Otherwise, the scheme is just a silly, cynical political charade.