During the debt ceiling negotiations, Republicans have cited that one of the conditions they have for voting to raisin the debt ceiling is the passage of the so-called balance budget amendment to the Constitution. Freshman Republicans have been pushing for the inclusion of the amendment as part of a deal, and the proposal will apparently be brought to the floor for a vote next week. It is interesting that this fits into the framing of the debate by the Republicans – in order to pay for our current debt obligations we must prevent future expenditures. Politico reported that Speaker John Boehner said that “we have to have real controls in place to make sure this never happens again. Real controls like a balanced budget amendment.”
The proposed balance budget amendment is simply put a piece of radical right wing magical thinking – along the lines of the thinking that cutting taxes increases revenues. Senate Joint Resolution 10 was introduced in the Senate this March with the support of all 47 Republican Senators, and House Joint Resolution 1 was introduced in the House this January with the support of 133 Republicans and one Democrat. The balance budget amendment has typically been introduced during every session of Congress, and generally speaking the wording looks the same.
The Senate version, eleven articles and is approximately 600 words, calls for a constitutionally mandate balanced budget unless the Congress votes to exceed the tax receipts with a two-thirds majority. Then it directs something curious. The amendment states that federal spending cannot exceed 18% of gross domestic product (GDP) – from the previous year. Never mind that GDP is not a legal measurement and that it is revised and updated, but Congress will be writing a budget for the next year with the numbers for the previous year. The federal budget will constantly be two years behind. Then there is the provision that says that taxes cannot be increased without a two-thirds majority vote, but tax cuts can still be passed with a simple majority. Also, the debt limit cannot be increased without a three-fifths majority vote. You think the debt negotiations are tense now.
The most astounding provision is the sixth section that states that the “Congress may waive the provisions of sections 1, 2, 3, and 5 of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war against a nation-state is in effect and in which a majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide for a specific excess by a roll call vote.” Sound like a recipe for perpetual war? Just to be safe, the seventh section says that the “United States is engaged in a military conflict that causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so declared by three-fifths of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote.” So, if we don’t happen to be at war, we can always engage in armed conflict somewhere.
The eighth section might be the most radical of all the sections – it states that “No court of the United States or of any State shall order any increase in revenue to enforce this article.” This sets up a scenario were federal judges would literally have the power to mandate budget cuts to whatever federal programs they see fit, which is exactly the type of judicial activism that Republicans always preach against. Also, since GDP fluctuates the budget could go through dramatic swings, and in the case of a recession – like the one we current find ourselves in – it would force Congress to hundreds of billions of dollars from the budget.
A vote next week would not be able actually balancing the budget or providing any clear economic policy that actually addresses the nation’s short term or long term fiscal problems. If there is a vote it will be only political theater – a chance for Republicans to have a balance budget amendment on their voting record. Not to mention that even if a balance budget amendment was passed by the House and the Senate, it would still have to be ratified by three fourths of the states. It is not a serious solution to a very serious problem.