R.I.P. Balanced Budget Amendment


We should all celebrate this morning because the House of Representatives has killed a cynical and ill-advised proposal to amend the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget (BBA).

We should all despair because a majority – 233 members – voted for the amendment on Thursday, providing a profile in hypocrisy that’s notable even in a city where hypocrisy is a fixture of daily life. The amendment failed only because our nation’s founders somehow had the foresight to write into the Constitution a requirement that constitutional amendments be supported by two-thirds of the House – 290 members – to advance.

The amendment, which technically remains alive in the Senate, is a formula for chaos in our government, as if we don’t have enough of that already. It would give effective control of the government’s finances to a minority of our elected representatives, 40 percent, who by insisting that federal spending can never exceed revenues would be able to block any effective response to domestic and foreign crises or force their colleagues to juggle the books to hide deficit spending.

Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn put her finger on the problem in this passage from an op-ed that appeared on Wednesday in USA Today:

A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is very different from how the average American family balances its own budget. In fact, most American families do not actually balance their budgets. Instead, they balance their checkbooks. We take out loans when we buy a house, send our kids to college, buy a car, or when there is a family emergency. With a BBA, the federal government could not borrow and raise money like this when there is a crisis. This is especially dangerous when our nation needs to spend extra money to respond to a national security crisis, a natural disaster, or a sudden change in the economy.

What makes the support the amendment attracted on Thursday particularly appalling is that the vote comes just weeks after the House and Senate graphically demonstrated their total lack of interest in actually balancing the budget. Both houses approved – and President Trump signed – tax cuts and spending increases that will add more than $1 trillion to the federal deficit. While Republicans and Democrats alike voted for that tax-and-spending combination, only the GOP leadership had the nerve to follow it with a balanced budget amendment.

The amendment is no more than an empty gesture, brought to a vote now to appease conservative elements of the Republican base that have been pushing it for decades and supported by members who have so little regard for their constituents that they’re unwilling to tell them the truth about the government’s finances.