I'm not sure how serious Matt Yglesias was with his suggestion of a Progressive Balanced Budget Amendment, and I'm sure that Democratic Senators working on their own BBA should probably name that one the CYA BBA. Nevertheless, I have to point out: there is no such thing as a good Balanced Budget Amendment. This has nothing at all to do with my personal opposition to balanced budgets, and everything to do with the nature of the budgets and the nature of the US Constitution. To review:
The problem is enforcement.
On the one hand, the whole notion of forcing the government to balance its budget is actually, in practice, impossible to implement. That's because much of what the government spends, and even more of what it takes in, are impossible to "budget" in any kind of exact way before the fact. That's because, under the way things are currently done, all we have at the beginning of a fiscal year are estimates of how fixed law will react with various economic and other facts to produce spending and revenue. Given that the best you can do at the beginning of the year are estimates, a BBA has two choices. It can require the budget to be balanced going into the fiscal year, but if it does that it will only encourage Congress and the president to use phony estimates (which aren't hard to do -- really, all you need are economic rosy scenarios). Or, you can require that the budget be balanced after the fact. But that's extremely difficult. Suppose revenues run short because the economy underperformed. Is the government going to demand highway funds that were paid out months ago? Have seniors mail back their Social Security checks? Impose a retroactive surtax? Really? It just doesn't work.
Now, the even worse part. How does this thing get enforced, anyway? The obvious answer is: through the courts. That's obviously a terrible idea; the courts shouldn't be involved in regular government budgeting at all, really, and they certainly shouldn't be doing the budgeting themselves. But how else do such things get enforced? Presumably, if any BBA passes the next thing that happens are appeals to the courts to get definitions of "budget," "balance," and everything else tossed in there.
It's just a terrible, terrible, awful idea.
The way to balance the budget is to balance the budget. When Congress and the president supported that goal in the 1990s, they did it. If they don't want to, a BBA isn't going to force them to. It would only create a big mess.