2013-02-10 – George Will wrote this week advocating a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
I am not in principal opposed to a balanced budget amendment. In the long run, our country has to take in as much as it spends. This is not a liberal or conservative position. Income and outgo simply have to be equal at some point. The liberal and conservative positions simply debate when this equivalence must occur: today, next year, ten years from now. And frankly, you’d be making a mistake to say that conservatives want the shorter time frame. Conservatives simply spend on different things than liberals do.
I used to think that Democrats and Republicans complemented each other well. Democrats spent and Republicans resisted. What would we need a balanced budget amendment for if this were true? It turns out that Republicans are bigger spenders than Democrats. They spend on wars and subsidies to big business. And they make no effort to collect revenue to cover the spending. In fact, they take steps to reduce revenue to benefit their big business constituency. The only kind of spending that Republicans like to restrain is that which might reduce the flow of cash to the top one percent.
Democrats pursue their own spending goals, but seem less adamant about restraining Republican spending. I guess they get campaign support from the same folks as Republicans. Republicans are laser focused on getting a larger and larger slice of the fixed pie for their backers. Democrats are all about expanding the pie so that everyone benefits.
And you can expand the pie. The economy can grow. That’s something we all hope for. But there is a limit to that, which is where a balanced budget amendment comes in.
The problem with a balanced budget amendment is that it could be used as a tool of blackmail. We’ve seen how this would work in the recent struggle over the debt limit (which is really a similar concept). It has been totally dysfunctional. We have seen one party, the Republicans, seemingly willing to take the country into financial disaster rather than reach compromises on spending and revenue.
I don’t want to constitutionalize this lever.
But what if we wrote the amendment to make our elected representatives pay for this kind of intransigence, instead of making the country pay?
Here is my idea: give the Congress a deadline for balancing the budget. If they miss it, all 535 representatives and senators lose their jobs! A new election is called within 120 days and incumbents are required to sit out for one election cycle (if a rep is ousted this way twice, he can never return). They could avoid this by approving an unbalanced budget by a two-thirds vote (or maybe the required vote is increased in proportion to how much the budget is out of balance).
I put that last provision in because there definitely are times when balancing a budget is a bad idea. But I think Congress should have to achieve a higher degree of agreement to pass an unbalanced budget. Representatives that would want to resist voting for such a budget would have to consider whether their principles are important enough that they are willing to lose their cushy job over the issue.
And, of course, faced with two bad choices, these people might be forced to sit down to a reasonable discussion about priorities for the country.
Or maybe not. At least we’d get to throw the bums out.
(I’ve talked here about how Congress can authorize an unbalanced budget. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about paying the debt off.)
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