A Political Stunt, Nothing More

House To Vote This Week On Balanced Budget Amendment

It’s being obscured by the specter of a deepening war in Syria, invasions of privacy on Facebook, and turmoil at the White House over the Russia investigation and Stormy Daniels, but the House of Representatives is set to act this week on a bad idea that has been knocking around since the 1970s ­– and whose time still has not come.

By Thursday, if not before, lawmakers are to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. With Republicans controlling the House, the amendment almost certainly will get a majority vote but will fall well short of the two-thirds margin it needs to advance.

Had the balanced budget amendment been in place in 2008, when the housing market collapsed and the nation plunged into the Great Recession, Congress likely would have been unable to respond. Because they were unconstrained by a balanced budget requirement, lawmakers were able to pass a $787 billion stimulus program that launched the recovery that continued through the Obama administration.

This week’s planned vote is a political gesture, nothing more, and in scheduling it now the House’s Republican leaders are showing off a level of hypocrisy that is eye-popping even by Washington standards.

This Congress already has passed budget-busting and tax-cutting bills that will reduce the government’s revenue by more than $1 trillion by 2020 while increasing military and domestic spending by $300 billion. Talk of balancing the budget against that backdrop is too much even for some GOP lawmakers, as well as for balanced budget advocates like industrialists and conservative mega-donors Charles and David Koch.

“If lawmakers think they can use a balanced budget amendment as a fig leaf of fiscal responsibility after just voting for such an irresponsible spending bill, they should think again,” Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a major Koch-backed lobby and political action group, told USA Today. “Congress had an opportunity to exercise fiscal discipline, and they blew it.”

“Republicans control the House, Senate and White House,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-TN, tweeted a few days before lawmakers began their Easter break. “If we were serious about balancing the budget, we would do it. But instead of doing the real work, some will push this symbolic measure so they can feel good when they go home to face voters.”

Corker is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, so he no longer has to fear the wrath of deficit-weary members of his party’s base whom the amendment is designed to appease. He also happens to be absolutely correct.

Common Cause has opposed the amendment since the Carter administration and continues to do so.

A March 1980 letter from then-Common Cause President David Cohen argued that the nation’s charter is not the proper place to set fiscal policy and that the amendment “could become an economic straitjacket.” The amendment’s restrictions would simply drive Congress to move spending programs off-budget to hide deficit spending, Cohen added.

Seventeen years after Cohen’s letter, then-Common Cause President Ann McBride wrote that the amendment would make the U.S. Supreme Court a forum for resolving disputes over economic policy. And because the 1997 version of the amendment would have permitted Congress to adopt an unbalanced budget only with the approval of a three-fifths majority of its members, it would have given a congressional majority effective control of the budget, McBride argued.

All those arguments remain valid. If members of both parties truly are interested in a balanced budget they have the power to deliver one, as they did during the Clinton administration. They simply need to ratchet up their collective nerve to pass tax increases and/or spending cuts that will make the government’s income match its expenses.