The nation’s capital always has an ample supply of hypocrisy but the seams are bursting with it this morning amid reports that the House Republican leadership plans to schedule a vote next week on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
The amendment is a terrible idea – more on that in a moment – but it’s particularly breathtaking to see it being brought up now, just a few weeks after Congress passed a tax bill that will add $1 trillion-plus to the federal budget deficit and followed that with a $1.3 trillion spending package.
Think of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has agreed to bring the amendment to the floor, as Casablanca’s Capt. Renault, pocketing his roulette winnings in Rick’s Café while declaring himself “shocked to find gambling is going on in here.”
Ryan surely knows the amendment has almost no chance of being passed. It’s being offered in hopes of calming GOP lawmakers’ fiscally conservative constituents – people who really believe in balanced budgets – and helping Republicans hold their House majority in what looks increasingly like a historic year for Democratic candidates.
Republicans also hope to use the amendment as a cudgel to force drastic cuts in federal spending on Medicare, Medicaid and other social spending programs that millions of Americans rely on.
The push for the amendment, amid a congressional spending spree, is another reminder (none was needed) of Congress’s abdication of its responsibility to manage the nation’s finances while taking care of the nation’s needs. Unwilling to levy the taxes needed to pay for vital government services, the amendment’s supporters hope to use the Constitution to force cuts to those services. The nation’s charter was written to serve as a blueprint for democratic governance, not fiscal management.
With the amendment in place, the federal government would find itself in a fiscal straitjacket, with future Congresses blocked from borrowing money to respond to natural disasters, another Great Recession, or an unexpected threat to national security. There would be more pressure for Congress to move popular spending programs off the books to skirt the balanced budget requirement; federal judges, unschooled in economics and fiscal policy, would be pressed into decisions about how strictly to enforce the spending limits.
In short, the amendment is a cure that’s worse than the disease.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: More Democracy Reforms