The worst idea in Washington
Bruce Bartlett takes a look at the Balanced Budget Amendment all 47 Republicans signed their names to and pronounces it “quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin.”
I think “stupid” is the wrong word. “Dangerous” is more like it. And maybe “radical.” This isn’t just a Balanced Budget Amendment. It also includes a provision saying that tax increases would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress — so, it includes a provision making it harder to balance the budget — and another saying that total spending couldn’t exceed 18 percent of GDP. No allowances are made for recessions, though allowances are made for wars. Not a single year of the Bush administration would qualify as constitutional under this amendment. Nor would a single year of the Reagan administration. The Clinton administration would’ve had exactly two years in which it wasn’t in violation.
Read that again: Every single Senate Republican has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would’ve made Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policy unconstitutional. That’s how far to the right the modern GOP has swung.
But the problem isn’t simply that the proposed amendment is extreme. It’s also unworkable. The baby boomers are retiring and health costs are rising. Unless you have a way to stop one or the other from happening — and no one does — spending as a percentage of GDP is going to have to rise. This proposal doesn’t interrupt those trends. It simply refuses to acknowledge them — or, to be more generous, it rules them unconstitutional. This is the equivalent of trying to keep your kid cute by passing a law saying he’s not allowed to grow up.
Another problem: In a recession, tax revenue plummets and GDP stops growing, but spending has to be sustained, or even increased, to a) give people unemployment insurance and Medicaid and other services they need and b) keep the economy from contracting violently. This amendments includes no provisions for recessions, meaning that when the economy contracted, the government would have to contract as well. That is to say, we’re still not out of one of the deepest recessions in American history, and every Senate Republican has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to make future recessions worse. It’s just breathtaking.
A world in which this amendment is added to the Constitution is a world in which America effectively becomes California. It’s a world where the procedural impediments to passing budgets and raising revenues are so immense that effective fiscal management is essentially impossible; it’s a world where we can’t make public investments or sustain the safety net; it’s a world where recessions are much worse than they currently are and the government has to do more of its work off-budget through regulation and gimmickry. I would like to say something positive about this proposal, say there’s some silver lining here. But there isn’t. This is economic demagoguery, and nothing more. It’s so unrealistic that it would’ve ruled all but two of the last 30 years unconstitutional, which means it’s so unrealistic that there has not yet been a Republican president who has proven it can be done. And that doesn’t just suggest it can’t be done: It suggests that when Republicans are actually in power and have control of the budget, they know perfectly well that it shouldn’t be done. They’re just pretending otherwise for the moment.