A Balanced Budget Amendment Is Still a Stupid Idea

Dressing up spending cuts in neutral-sounding rhetoric about a balanced budget is, if not dishonest, then an admission of political weakness.

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The headline in The Hill newspaper—“Republicans see balanced budget amendment as potent campaign weapon"—may tell us everything we need to know about the apparent resurgence of this well-intentioned, but deeply misguided, idea.

“A balanced budget amendment has polled well in several Senate battlegrounds, according to a Republican strategist familiar with internal polling,” writes the Hill’s Alexander Bolton.

Okay, fine; but let’s hear no more of this nonsense come January 2011. Republican majorities in one or both houses of Congress will have better things to do.

First, the amendment’s requirement that the federal government annually spend no more than it collects is, quite simply, insane. Debt in itself is not harmful, neither for governments nor for households. Excessive debt—that is, debt so large that it can’t easily or realistically be financed—is a different story.

The amendment’s additional requirement of a supermajority vote—two-thirds of both the House and Senate—to increase taxes gives the game away: If you’re serious about balancing the budget, why would you make it much harder for Congress to balance the budget?

[See a slide show of 5 bad Republican policy ideas.]

There is boring, Bob Dole-style fiscal rectitude. And there is the more exhilarating, Reaganite talk of slashing federal outlays. The two tropes are far from inclusive, and difficult to achieve in practice—as the Gipper himself discovered.

If substantial spending cuts are what the Jim DeMint bloc of the GOP truly seeks—and I sympathize with them, to a degree—then they should say so. Dressing up this desire in neutral-sounding rhetoric about a balanced budget is, if not dishonest, then an admission of political weakness.

[See who supports DeMint.]

Consider, too, what amending the Constitution implies: an exhaustion of the political and/or democratic process to solve our fiscal problems. George Will wrote in 1996: “Nowadays the political class spends as much as it can with the politically least risky mix of taxation and debt.”

By kicking the problem upstairs, so to speak, conservatives all but invite judges into this increasingly incendiary mix.

Kathleen M. Sullivan, the liberal former Stanford Law dean, argued against supermajority requirements in terms that should not grate on conservative ears:

[They] are engraved invitations to taxpayers to file lawsuits objecting to measures that they claim increase their taxes or to any expenditures said to unbalance the budget. Taxpayers normally do not have standing to come into court to complain about how the government is run—except when a specific constitutional provision specifically limits congressional power to tax and spend. The proposed fiscal amendments could give whole new meaning to that exception, drawing unelected judges deeply into matters of economic policy.

Come on, conservatives. We’re staking this midterm election on the belief that a majority of the American public is serious about addressing the country’s long term debt.

Pushing for a balanced budget amendment would signal that we’re still not ready to call their bluff.