By James Ledbetter
The opinions expressed are his own.
One of the crucial lubricants allowing Congress to resolve the debt-ceiling friction was, apparently, the inclusion of a provision to vote on a balanced-budget amendment. Assuming this version of the deal passes, then at some time between September 30 and December 31 of this year, both houses of Congress will be required to vote on a ‘‘joint resolution proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States.’’
Whatever the political expediency of this provision may be, a balanced budget amendment is a bad idea from a conservative point of view, for at least three reasons.
It won’t work. Historically, conservatives have opposed extending government authority in places where it is not effective. You can find all the evidence you need to conclude that balanced budget requirements are useless by simply investigating the oft-repeated claim that 49 states have laws requiring a balanced budget. Leave aside the falsity of the claim and just consider the logic: if so many states are required to balance their budgets, why are so many states in the red?
The answer is that requiring state governments to annually balance their books simply encourages them to find clever ways to disguise debt and deficits. For example: California has both a Constitutional and a statutory requirement that its budgets be balanced. Would any sane person maintain that the state’s books have been anything resembling healthy for at least a decade? This year, after some brutal spending cuts, the governor’s office found that the state still had a short-term deficit of more than $9 billion and $35 billion in long-term debt. The governor’s budget report noted that California’s “massive budget deficits for most of the past decade…have been largely the result of a reliance on one-time solutions, borrowing, accounting maneuvers, and cuts or revenues that were illusory and therefore did not materialize.”
If that sounds familiar, it may be because, as Richard Quest pointed out on CNN Sunday evening, we’ve witnessed numerous Congressional attempts in recent decades to rein in federal deficits—including Gramm-Rudman in 1985 and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990—all of which fell victim to legislative legerdemain. Why would a federal balanced budget amendment be any different?