I have to (reluctantly) disagree with Jim DeMint and other leading conservatives with the recent push for a Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) to the Constitution. I think it is a mistake to be pushing this, let alone make it a litmus test for presidential and senatorial candidates. Furthermore, the push and emphasis on a BBA is distracting us from far more practical and realistic solutions to getting federal spending under control.
It is certainly tempting to impose new supermajority requirements when the Democrats still control much of Washington. However, we need to think through the long-term implications of those new requirements. A supermajority requirement is tantamount to giving a minority veto power.
Consider the following hypothetical: After 2012, we have a Republican president and substantial, but not 2/3, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Then a crisis erupts – a devastating terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11, a natural disaster on the scale of the Japan earthquake, or a full out war with Iran breaks out. Most Americans and Republican members of Congress agree that the crisis justifies borrowing money. But… a small cabal of 1/3 + 1 left-wing Democrats decide to take some political “hostages”. They refuse to go along unless the Republican president and Congressional majorities cave in to their demands such as a Bernie Sanders-style single-payer health care entitlement or a massive tax hike. Do we really want to give a small minority that kind of power?
The war scenario especially concerns me. We all know that the federal government has the unique responsibility of national security. There are constant reminders that we still live in a dangerous world. Borrowing money needs to be a (rarely used) tool at the federal government’s disposal. But a sufficent number of Democrats are so beholden to antiwar types like MoveOn.org that I could easily see them causing all sorts of mischief in the above hypothetical scenario.
The spending and debt crisis is now. But we all should realize that ratifying a new Constitutional amendment could take years if not a decade or more. Even a rosy prediction for getting a BBA ratified will not do much in the near term. Why make this a hill to die on when there are far more practical and realistic alternatives available?
Here are some alternatives that do not require the high burden of amending the Constitution. I just finished reading Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s book California Crackup about the mess that California is in. These are some proposals they offer for CA that could equally apply to the federal government.
Clear, honest, and transparent accounting rules. NR’s Kevin Williamson has written that our fiscal situation is much worse than a $14 trillion national debt. It is really $130 trillion. Then of course there were all the gimmicks used to make Obamacare a deficit reducer that Paul Ryan so eloquently pointed out. Requiring the government to abide by the same accounting rules it imposes on publicly traded companies would go a long way in increasing public awareness of our dire situation.
A real rainy day fund. In addition to simply getting our federal budget into balance, we need to start putting away money into a rainy day fund with strict rules for withdrawing such money (e.g., revenue shortfall greater than 10% of projections). Doing so would reduce the need to run budget deficits and help restore bond markets’ confidence in the long term US budget outlook.
Real PAYGO and statutory spending caps, not the charade we’ve seen recently from Pelosi and the Dems. Couple that with 10-year sunset provisions for all budget liabilities. We shouldn’t need someone like former Sen. Jim Bunning to stage a 1-man filibuster because an increase in unemployment benefits was not paid for by offsetting spending cuts. Requiring new obligations to be paid for ought to be standard procedure. Wouldn’t it be nice if Medicare or the Dept of Education required an explicit reauthorization every 10 years? How about every year we build up the budget from $0.00, instead of starting at last year’s spending levels? That would force the kind of serious debate and discussion this country has lacked for far too long.
Then, of course, we have serious budget proposals from Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and Pat Toomey that would steer the fiscal trajectory of the country in a far more responsible direction. None of these requires a constitutional amendment to enact. If we need a litmus test or “hill to die on”, any of those would make far more sense.
Another reason for not pursuing a BBA is simply this: The Constitution should just be a basic framework that defines the relationship between people and their government. We don’t need to be writing budget policy into the Constitution. It could backfire with all kinds of unintended consequences (see California). Budgeting belongs in regular laws and statutes. Mathews and Paul examine this in their book about California, whose constitution all sorts of budget policy in it.
Lastly, let’s suppose I am wrong about all of this and that a BBA would actually be good long-term policy. Why does DeMint want to make it a litmus test for presidential candidates? The president has no role in amending the Constitution. It is left solely to Congress and state legislatures.