“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Regarding a Balanced Budget Amendment

After reading a recent Wall Street Journal staff editorial concerning proposed Balanced Budget amendments as part of the current debt limit debates, I have changed my position on the topic from what I wrote in this post last month. In that early June piece, I wrote,

"The former Senator goes on to complain that such a balanced budget amendment strips Congress of its Constitutional duty to make spending decisions, failing to acknowledge that the decisions Congress has made since 1933 is always simply "more."

That's why we need an amendment. And even then it's almost certain to contain at least one war-related loophole, which should make you cringe at how craven some future president will be, in conjunction with Congress, to excuse higher deficits.

Can't you just imagine us declaring war on Lichtenstein in order to run yet another annual budget deficit?

I'm sorry to say, I can. That's how bad the untrustworthiness of the average Congressman and Senator has become."
Certainly, within the context of this current struggle over Congressional authorization of a debt limit, a Balanced Budget amendment is Constitutional overkill. Being old enough to remember several attempts to add amendments to the Constitution, this is neither the time nor the manner in which to resolve the issue at hand.
Ramming such an amendment through Congress in 2-3 weeks will only assure that it's ill-designed and overlooks important details.
I was also swayed by arguments in the recent Journal editorial against an amendment. In particular, these passages,

"The new Members who are intent on fiscal responsibility should visit with Congressional historians to discover a root cause of this modern spending catastrophe—the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act, the most laughable title ever placed on a federal law.

Passed amid Richard Nixon's struggles over spending with Congress, the law eviscerated the President's ability to impound Congressional spending. The law itself was an act of rage against Nixon's impoundments. "Control" over spending tipped into the hands of Congress, as is clear from the upward path of federal spending post-1974. This was the start of the infamous "baseline" budgeting rules, which automatically ratchet up spending from one year to the next.

Rather than trying to scale the impossibly high cliff of a Constitutional amendment, younger Members should revisit that bad law and fix it. Tom DeLay never wanted to fix it, but Paul Ryan does. The goal of an achievable reform act would be to put spending on a downward slope. That would include getting rid of baseline budgeting, restoring the Presidential impoundment power (if liberal Congresses hated it, it must have been good), and requiring the two-thirds majority for tax increases.

The BBA's supporters are right that the U.S. is riding a runaway entitlement train. That train, however, is the product of politics, and politics is the way it will have to be stopped. The main political impact of the BBA, however, will be to give "moderate" Senate Democrats up for re-election next year a chance to enhance their prospects by voting "for" spending control they don't believe in."

Furthermore, the editorial pointed out an unintended consequence of a BBA, i.e., liberal Democrats will use it to cut spending they don't like, such as defense, while raising taxes under the protection of the amendment.

No, it's too blunt an instrument for what is, in reality, a product of political forces. And it doesn't share something most other amendments do, which is either an added law involving a fundamental concept viewed as central to American values, such as the Bill of Rights, or a very clear-cut, well-defined operationally-oriented amendment, such as succession of a disable President, direct election of Senators, and the like.

This current debacle will have to be resolved without resorting to a Hail Mary solution such as a BBA.

And, happily, Paul Ryan is interested in changing the awful Impoundment Act of 1974 in order to bring a measure of budgetary control back into the process sans an amendment.

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