Feature

Balanced-budget amendment: The row goes on

The proposal for a balanced-budget amendment has come up numerous times in our nation’s history.

Here it comes again, said The Washington Post in an editorial: the “bad idea that never dies.” As a sop to the Tea Party faction of House Republicans, this week’s dramatic, last-minute deal to raise the national debt ceiling includes a requirement that Congress must, by Dec. 31, vote on an amendment to the Constitution that would require the federal government to balance its budget every year. This proposal has been floated numerous times in our nation’s history, and even came within a single Senate vote of passage in 1995. But it has failed every time for the same obvious reason: We cannot see the future. While our current “fiscal situation is perilous,” we cannot deny future Congresses “the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies” that we can’t yet imagine. Reining in spending is a must, but a “balanced-budget amendment remains a deeply flawed approach to achieving a noble goal.”

“It would have to be done right,” said Edward Glaeser in Bloomberg.com. But assuming the text allows exceptions for emergencies, the case for a balanced-budget amendment “seems a lot stronger than it did in the 1980s and 1990s.” Power once shifted back and forth between Democrats who covered their heavy spending with tax hikes and Republicans who reliably cut spending and lowered taxes. These days, both parties are addicted to spending without paying for it, and the result is today’s record deficits. We need “a simple, clear, and supreme directive” that government has to live within its means, said Dick Thornburgh in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As long as it’s drafted responsibly, “there’s nothing nutty about a balanced-budget amendment.”

Conservatives should be leading the charge against this foolish idea, said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. By its very nature, a balanced-budget amendment would exert as much pressure on Congress to raise taxes as to cut spending, and for what? The truth is that “the difference between balance and a small deficit is meaningless in the long run.” What landed us in our current mess was massive overspending, by successive governments, and we can’t nickel-and-dime our way back into solvency. Nothing is stopping Congress from balancing the budget tomorrow, said USA Today, except the lack of political will. We should be making tough choices about the real world of today, not voting for some feel-good “gimmick that someday, maybe, would address the problem” of our unbalanced federal budget.

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