A ‘thoughtful’ bad idea is still a bad idea

As regular readers know, I tend to think of the Balanced Budget Amendment as one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas. That congressional Republicans managed to create a BBA this year that was even worse than the previous version is a testament to their creativity.

What sensible policymakers should be doing is dismissing this “pathetic joke” of a proposal as quickly as possible. Trying to create a more “thoughtful” version is a step in the wrong direction.

Enter Sen. Mark Udall, the centrist Democrat from Colorado, who has introduced an amendment proposal and said Tuesday that Democratic leaders have chosen his legislation to be considered in the fall.

President Obama and other senior Democrats have opposed any balanced-budget amendment, but the idea is popular with many voters — particularly independents, who are growing more fiscally conservative. […]

Udall’s amendment has a couple of provisions that might win over some Democrats. It creates a “Social Security lockbox” (with apologies to Al Gore and his Saturday Night Live impersonator) that his office says would “protect the revenue and outlays of Social Security from any balanced budget requirement.” And it prohibits Congress from providing income tax breaks for people earning over $1 million a year unless the country is enjoying budget surpluses.

“What I’m proposing is the most responsible, thoughtful, and workable balanced budget amendment,” Udall said.

I’m sure Udall means well, but a more “thoughtful” version of a bad idea is sill a bad idea.

In addition to all of the usual reasons a BBA is a tragic mistake — reasons that apply to Udall’s measure and the Republican versions alike — it’s worth reemphasizing a couple of related points.

First, the whole idea of the BBA is a cheap cop-out. Policymakers who want to balance the budget can put together a plan to balance the budget. It’s hard work, of course, and would require sacrifice and compromise, but those who take this goal seriously can put in the effort and craft a plan.

But they really don’t want to. Instead of drafting a plan to balance the budget, BBA proponents want a constitutional gimmick that will mandate a policy goal they can’t figure out how to accomplish on their own. That’s not responsible policymaking; that’s the opposite.

And in case this isn’t already obvious, even the point of this endeavor is misguided. Sometimes, running deficits is the smart, responsible thing to do, and to assume that the budget should always be balanced is fundamentally misguided.

There’s no way to put lipstick on this pig. Any version of the Balanced Budget Amendment is just a horrible idea. Well-intentioned policymakers who want to lower the deficit should focus less on constitutional gimmicks and more on economic growth and fiscal responsibility.