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.
Congress should also realize that a balanced budget amendment, even if it passed Congress, would have no chance of ratification by 38 states. The states have allowed themselves to become heavily dependent on federal handouts. They understand that a balanced federal budget will sharply reduce those handouts, forcing them to make painful decisions to cut services or raise taxes. They will refuse to place themselves in such political danger.
The amendments do include one useful feature, a requirement that the president submit a balanced budget each year. That requirement can and should be enacted as legislation immediately. Even if Congress has no intention of balancing the budget in the near future (and it is abundantly clear that most Members of Congress have no such intention), beginning each year’s budget process from a point of balance would promote just the debate that America needs. Congress would be compelled to discuss what should be added to the president’s budget and why it is so important that it justifies deficit spending.
This type of debate over national priorities is what has been missing, with both sides making long-term projections that provide little in the way of specifics. We need to cut more than $1 trillion of spending, and we should immediately begin an honest discussion about which $1 trillion in the budget is least important.
Howard Phillips is chairman of the Conservative Caucus.