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If you watched any one of the three episodes of “Prohibition,” Ken Burns’ excellent PBS series about the attempt in the early part of the 20th century to ban alcoholic consumption in the United States, it’s impossible not to see the strong parallels between that effort and the movement to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The most obvious similarity is that Prohibition was and the BBA is an effort to enact a constitutional amendment. But there’s so much more that the comparison is almost eerie.
Although they both had their origins years earlier, both arose at the start of their respective centuries. The first was and the second is a movement that in large part pits the heartland vs. the cities. In addition, actual or pseudo-religious movements organized both and had or have supporters that are often seen as uncompromising zealots.
To be sure, the comparisons between Prohibition and a balanced budget amendment aren’t perfect. Instead of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, we now have the tea party. Instead of an effort to limit personal behavior with a law that bans drinking alcohol, we now have an effort to stop the government from having a budget with revenues that are less than spending.
But the biggest similarity between Prohibition and the BBA is far more obvious if you watch “Boardwalk Empire,” which has just started its second season on HBO.
“Boardwalk Empire” shows yet again the truly extraordinary lengths that Americans went to evade the 18th Amendment and the National Prohibition Act (the Volstead Act), the law that was enacted to enforce the amendment. In fact, the widespread evasion — everything from bootleg liquor to speakeasies and massive crime in spite of the often extraordinary efforts to prevent them — absolutely forced Prohibition to be repealed not that long after the amendment was ratified.
That same type of widespread avoidance and evasion that quickly doomed Prohibition is likely, if not very virtually guaranteed, to happen if a balanced budget amendment is adopted by Congress and ratified by the states.
BBA supporters disagree and say the amendment and a Volstead-like balanced budget-enabling act can be written in a way that will make the policy ironclad. The truth, however, is that no matter how it’s drafted, a BBA absolutely will be even easier to evade than was ever the case with Prohibition. After all, as many of the actual pictures that Burns used shows, bottles of booze could be and were smashed against the curbs in streets across America to make them impossible to drink. By contrast, nothing can be smashed or seized to balance the federal budget.
The first problem will be deciding which budget has to be balanced. The budgets the president submits and Congress is supposed to adopt each year all happen before the fiscal year starts. Presumably, therefore, those budgets will comply with the law if they show revenues equaling spending.