It often seems that Blue Dog Democrats, along with a handful of Senate moderates, are the only people in Washington who are serious about fiscal responsibility. Chasing the will-o-the-wisp of a balanced budget amendment, however, seems more likely to distract from than advance that essential cause.
The idea is seductively simple: The only way to restrain deficit spending in Washington is to make it unconstitutional. That’s how the states keep their books balanced, and there’s no reason the federal government shouldn’t do the same.
In fact, there are several. Consider that today’s federal deficit is about 12 percent of GDP. It’s going to go down as the economy recovers, but the spending and tax adjustments that would have to be made to get it all the way down to zero would be unduly draconian and disruptive. Also, unlike state mandates, a federal balanced budget amendment for accounting reasons would not distinguish between capital investment and consumption. But government borrowing to invest in public infrastructure or higher education, for example, makes economic sense, because it will generate more economic activity and amortize itself over time.
What’s more, the federal government acts as the nation’s fiscal safety valve, or strategic reserve. During severe economic downturns, the only way many states can provide services while preserving their fiscal virtue is to get counter-cyclical assistance (or revenue sharing) from Washington. A constitutional ban on deficits could prevent Washington from responding to emergencies of all kinds.
In truth, we don’t need a balanced federal budget — we need a disciplined federal budget. Congress would be better off adopting Sen. Mike Bennett’s (D-CO) sensible suggestion that federal deficits be held first to four percent, then to three percent of GDP each year. At that level, they’d be gradually whittled down by economic growth, and the government could borrow without swelling the national debt.
A balanced budget amendment, moreover, is a blunter instrument than we need to deal with overspending and undertaxing in Washington. It doesn’t hone in on the real problem, which is the automatic and unsustainable growth in entitlement spending. A better idea, from the Brookings-Heritage Fiscal Seminar, is to bring Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on budget, which would require Congress to periodically reconcile income and spending to keep the programs solvent.
Finally, a balanced budget amendment is just too damn difficult to enact. Congress has to approve Constitutional amendments by a two-thirds vote, well nigh inconceivable given how hard it is to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Then three-fourths of the states would have to approve an amendment.
Demanding a balanced budget amendment thus is more of a symbolic gesture than a real solution to America’s fiscal crisis. Recall that it was a key plank in the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America, but Republicans quickly lost interest once they won control of Congress. Nonetheless, Newt Gingrich has endorsed the amendment in a bid to recapture the old magic for this year’s midterm elections.
Unlike the Republicans, of course, the Blue Dogs have real street cred when it comes to fiscal rectitude. They fought successfully to resurrect “pay go” rules that require Congress to offset new spending with tax hikes or budget cuts. And key Blue Dog leaders like Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) have led the charge for a bipartisan commission to get entitlement spending under control.
It’s vital, though, that progressive deficit hawks not let the holy grail of a constitutional amendment deflect them from the gritty, day-to-day battles in Congress to get America’s exploding deficits and debts under control.