On Thursday, House Republicans will vote on a constitutional amendment proposed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) that would require the federal government to balance its budget every year. The vote, which is virtually guaranteed to fall short of the two-thirds super majority necessary for passage, is nothing more than a cynical ploy to give the party of debt and deficits a veneer of fiscal responsibility while they make no serious effort to earn it. Anyone who is truly concerned about soaring deficits should ignore this distraction and focus on the real record of the Republican-controlled Congress.
In December, the same House Republicans who now ostensibly want to reduce budget deficits championed a partisan tax cut that instead grew the gap between revenue and spending by $1.9 trillion over 10 years. In February, they voted to increase deficit spending by roughly $400 billion over two years. As if more than $2 trillion of additional deficits over two months wasn’t enough, Republicans are hoping to pile on even more borrowing later this year with yet another round of tax cuts. On our current path, deficits over the next decade could total $15 trillion.
Closing this gap through spending cuts alone, as most Republicans would presumably seek to do, would require lawmakers to immediately and permanently cut more than one-quarter of all non-interest spending. If they sought to exempt defense spending or entitlement programs such as Social Security, the cuts to non-exempt programs would need to be even deeper. Simply mandating the budget be balanced doesn’t liberate policymakers from the painful trade-offs required to make it happen.
Should Congress and the president fail to adopt the policy changes necessary to comply with the balanced budget amendment of their own volition, there is no enforcement mechanism in the Goodlatte proposal to compel them. Ill-equipped courts would inevitably be asked to determine national economic policy that should be crafted by the legislative and executive branches.
The Republican crusade for this poorly crafted amendment is particularly dubious considering that most economic experts, including those who are sincerely and deeply committed to promoting fiscal responsibility, don’t believe in the necessity of a balanced budget. Small deficits can be sustainable as long as the debt burden that finances them is growing slower than the economy. For this reason, most informed deficit hawks believe the goal should be to stabilize and reduce the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product rather than to balance the budget.
In fact, requiring a balanced budget in every year could be quite harmful if it prevents the government from using temporary borrowing to stabilize the economy during a downturn. The Goodlatte proposal would only allow spending to exceed revenue in a given year if supported by a three-fifths super majority in both the House and the Senate. When economic output falls, this onerous requirements would make it incredibly difficult for the federal government to maintain even pre-recession spending levels, let alone provide the kind of economic stimulus necessary to prevent a recession from turning into a deep depression.
The sole reason House Republicans are pushing this half-baked proposal now is to give themselves a fig leaf to cover their shameful legislative record. When Congress returned to Washington yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office greeted them with updated projections showing federal budget deficits that were trillions of dollars higher than those projected last year. Republicans hope their constituents will ignore the real damage they’ve done to our nation’s finances if they merely affirm their support for balancing the budget in principle.
Democrats and deficit hawks shouldn’t let the GOP off the hook so easily. They should repudiate this meaningless show vote and demand Congressional Republicans either put up or shut up. Making our fiscal policy sustainable requires real solutions; the proposed balanced budget amendment is nothing more than a sham to avoid them.
This post has been updated to reflect that the version of the amendment being voted on is different than the version Rep. Goodlatte posted on his website last week. That version, which can still be found here, would have also required a three-fifths super majority in both chambers to raise additional revenue and an even larger two-thirds super majority to authorize spending more than one fifth of economic output.