It is time for conservatives in Congress to cease wasting time on a balanced budget constitutional amendment and focus on a specific plan to end the deficit through spending cuts.
A balanced budget amendment is a waste of time because it would fail to produce a balanced budget. It cannot be effectively enforced.
Enforcement would have to be the responsibility of Congress, the president or the federal courts. Congress will certainly not enforce such an amendment because it already has the power to balance the budget but has refused to do so.
An amendment would not change the basic political equation, which is that voters welcome government benefits while refusing to accept the taxes required to pay for those benefits. This guarantees that Congress would respond to a balanced budget amendment by seizing upon any loophole to evade it, and the amendments always include one or more such loopholes.
Most amendments allow Congress to continue deficit spending during a war, even an undeclared war. The amendments also allow Congress, by the vote of a supermajority, to suspend the balanced budget requirement whenever Congress wishes to do so. The political realities would make it much easier to obtain a three-fifths or two-thirds vote to “temporarily” continue spending than a majority to make painful and unpopular spending cuts.
Handing enforcement power to the president would be no more effective and would introduce dangerous side effects. The president would feel the same political constraints as Congress and would be unwilling to risk unpopularity for himself and his party.
However, giving him the power to make unilateral decisions on spending cuts would enormously increase the president’s influence over Congress. He would be able to threaten Members with the loss of spending considered vital for their state or district, forcing them into line when administration bills come up for a vote.
Our nation would suffer from the worst of both worlds as the president made small spending cuts to punish his political enemies while refusing to balance the budget.
Turning the matter over to the courts might be the worst solution of all. Federal judges have no expertise in deciding budget priorities and cannot be expected to make wise decisions. Furthermore, the courts normally move much too slowly. By the time the case had gone from the district court through the appeals court to a final decision by the Supreme Court, the fiscal year would already be over.
Allowing the matter to go directly to the Supreme Court would speed up the procedure, but how long would it take for the justices to review the federal budget, whose listing of programs in the annually published appendix is more than 1,000 pages long? Would the Supreme Court have time to take up any other cases while it debated the relative value of military bases, border control, medical research, housing subsidies, Social Security and education?
The Supreme Court would also be handicapped by the necessity of having at least five of the nine justices agree on a single budget balancing plan. It is entirely possible that they would find themselves deadlocked (much like Congress) and unable to unite behind any single approach.
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.