Friday, April 1, 2011

The Explode-the-Deficit Constitutional Amendment

Yes, the whole concept of putting a Balanced Budget Amendment into the Constitution is a stupid idea, even if you subscribe to the oddball religion that holds a federal balanced budget as the center of its faith.

But the measure that Senate Republicans – all of them, every single last one – have decided to support isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a balanced budget amendment. It’s a George W. Bush Budget Amendment, promising exploding Bush-style budget deficits as far as the eye can see. That’s because it places serious, probably real obstacles to raising revenues, while doing nothing whatsoever about spending. Nothing. Nada.

Result? If this pathetic joke of an amendment (as Bruce Bartlett says,It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin”) were actually enacted, lots and lots of deficit spending.   
Look at the thing. Section One says:
Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.
Not only is there no enforcement mechanism, but there’s no enactment mechanism. That is, there’s nothing here (or in the rest of the resolution) to force Congress to actually take any actions. Congress doesn’t pass a law every year specifying total receipts and total outlays; at best, it passes a non-binding budget resolution, but everyone who follows budget politics knows that the numbers in the budget resolution have no fixed relationship to what Congress eventually does that year (which, in turn, has only minimal effects on actual government revenues and expenditures, most of which are not affected by what Congress does). 

In other words, there is simply nothing in this amendment to force Congress to do anything about deficits.

If the amendment was law, Congress could simply continue to pass annual appropriations bills, and....well, there is no "and."  What it amounts to in practical terms, as far as I can see, is a statement of principle; we might as well put in the Constitution that global warning is a hoax and evolution a communist plot, for all the good any of it would do. The same is basically true, as well, of the provisions claiming to cap spending. They just don't; Congress doesn't currently pass laws that set expenditures at a percentage of GDP, and there's nothing in this amendment that would force it to begin doing so. (Entirely superfluous Section 10 would allow Congress to pass legislation to enforce the amendment, but Congress is already free to pass such legislation right now).

The amendment does, however, make action significantly harder on the revenue side of the ledger, by requiring a two-thirds supermajority in each House of Congress for any tax increase. In fact, that's the only real thing that the amendment would do (well, that and making the debt limit more difficult to raise). As far as I can see, that provision, Section 4 of the amendment, really would change Congressional procedures.

So: no effect on spending, but a lot harder to raise revenues. Any guesses about what that would do to the deficit? That's right; it goes up, up, up. 

I think my second-favorite part of this version (and you'll have to wait for another item for my favorite part -- sorry) is Section 8, which says: "No court of the United States or of any State shall order any increase in revenue to enforce this article." What I like about it is that it constitutes an admission that the only possible enforcement of this awful idea would involve transferring control of the federal budget from the Congress to the courts -- although in practice, it's hard to see exactly how a court could really enforce such a thing. Especially if revenues can't be involved. Presumably, even if a court touched a case brought against the government under this amendment, there would be nothing that could be done until after the Fiscal Year had passed and the actual deficit showed up; do the sponsors then want the courts to go around, say in 2018, and shake down seniors for their old Social Security checks from 2016 to retroactively bring the FY2016 budget into balance? Yeah.

One more time: procedural tricks won't balance the budget. Balancing the budget requires either some combination of more revenues and lower expenditures. That's it. Any politician who peddles this junk is either a fool or a scam artist.


  1. In other words, it's politics as usual.

    I'm sure a lot of Tea Party members will love to say they introduced this bill to their constituents, just to shore up the base.

  2. It sure sounds good to their base that they introduced an amendment to cap spending.

    Franky, I'm a little surprised the Republicans don't introduce more meaningless legislation like this. Where are the "Democrats hate puppies" and "Liberals are losers" amendments?

  3. Oh, please tell me your favorite part is this bit from Section 4 invoking the supply-side tax cut fairy: "For the purpose of determining any increase in revenue under this section, there
    shall be excluded any increase resulting from the lowering of the statutory rate of any tax."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?