Posted by: Cortillaen | 06/29/2011

Balanced Budget Amendment: Is It Really That Hard?

You’ve probably seen the proposal for the supposed Balanced Budget Amendment around the net. It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? We could finally rein in government spending, get rid of the deficit, maybe even start paying down the national debt. If only that were so. Ever read the real thing? It’s a pile of crap, and by “crap”, I mean “exceptions, loopholes, and all the usual legalese crap”. Yes, that is an intentionally recursive definition. It illustrates exactly how little I think of the proposed BBA. I. Hate. It.

Sections 1, 2, and 4, the meat of the proposed amendment, all have “unless we vote to ignore this” clauses. Section 3 is “The President has to submit a budget, meeting certain criteria to be determined by people working for the President, so Congress can mostly ignore it as usual”. Section 5 pretends at being worthwhile by tossing a bone to us “Quit raising the bloody debt limit!” types, but it just gives the minority party a little more leverage in negotiations that seem to inevitably end with the increase going through. Why not just peg the limit at a low percentage of GDP and call it a day? Sections 6 and 7 are “the votes to ignore the previous sections get rolled into one easier vote anytime we’re fighting”. Section 8 is “the courts can’t create taxes”, since, apparently, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the US Constitution isn’t good enough. Section 9 defines “total receipts” and “total outlays” and is, sadly, the only part of the proposed amendment I don’t take issue with. That the BBA’s authors made the freakin’ definitions section, the classic weaselly schemer’s paradise, the only decent part of the proposed amendment just makes me hate the whole thing even more. It also makes me wonder if I’m just missing some carefully omitted aspect of spending. Section 10 is mostly redundant since, apparently, nobody pays attention to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18 of the US Constitution except for the words “necessary and proper”. To save the section from pure redundancy, Section 10 also authorizes the use of “estimates of outlays, receipts, and gross domestic product” to guide the enforcement of the BBA. In other words, “fudge your little hearts out”. Last, but not to be outdone in the hate-garnering, Section 11 specifies when the BBA would go into effect: 4 to 5 years after ratification, depending on ratification date. Why the wait? Is it cynical to think that ridiculously long in-waiting period is there to give them plenty of time to revise, repeal, bury, or otherwise weasel out of actually complying with even the pathetically flimsy requirements of the BBA? Well, one thing watching politics is good for is curing a person of believing cynicism exists in regards to politicians.

CFP’s Publius Huldah has an interesting take that the combination of Sections 3 and 8 of the BBA, the former backing the latter, serve to transfer the power to levy taxes to the Executive Branch since Section 8 specifically excludes said branch from the “you can’t levy taxes” admonishment. That seems pretty far-fetched, frankly. It strikes me as much more reasonable to view Section 3 as a rebuke against Presidents failing to submit their budget proposals and Section 8 as an injunction against the courts to not try protecting spending levels while complying with the BBA by ordering increases in taxes. This would almost make Section 8 the second decent section of the BBA, but then it reminds me of how screwed up the country is when authors of a constitutional amendment feel the need to remind judges that they don’t have the constitutional power to fiddle with tax rates. Anyway, the CFP article’s contention would rely on the Supreme Court ruling that the exclusion of the Executive Branch from the “you can’t fiddle with taxes” section of the BBA also rewrites Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the US Constitution to grant the power of taxation therein to the President. I just don’t see an oblique implication by exclusion being taken to overwrite a very clear, explicit statement. There’s also a claim that the BBA’s percentage-of-GDP spending cap somehow repeals Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 of the US Constitution. I have no idea how that’s supposed to work, and the author doesn’t explain it beyond the assertion that “the BBA, by ignoring the unconstitutional objects of Congress’ spending, and by merely limiting the amount of such spending to 18% of the GDP & the taxes the President assesses, repeals the enumerated powers aspect of our Constitution“. I usually like the CFP, but that post is a little on the hysterical side.

In the end, the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment, despite its support from purportedly conservative members of Congress, is worse than worthless. Even without the alleged transfers of power and overwriting of the Constitution, the BBA would actually cause harm to our nation. It offers “outs” on every provision that matters, and, even if one assumes that A) the amendment is ratified and actually followed; b) the exception votes are required for each new bill authorizing expenses over the limit; and c) that such bills aren’t simply rolled up into a single omnibus monstrosity (AKA “business as usual”), remember “Deem and Pass”? My bet would be on our wonderful representatives in DC simply getting used to adding a little clause to the effect of “An aye vote on this bill also constitutes an aye vote to exempting this bill from Sections 1 and 2 of the Twenty-Eighth Amendment [or whatever it might end up being] as per the process described therein” to every bill, buried somewhere in all the mumbo-jumbo no one really reads or understands. That just makes the proposed amendment worthless. What makes it worse than worthless is how it would give our lords and masters in DC cover for continuing exactly as they have. “But we passed that oppressive amendment you plebs demanded! We have abided by the very letter of the Balanced Budget Amendment in crafting all our spending. You can’t complain about that!” Just think of the field day the leftists would have, too: “There, that Balanced Budget Amendment is in, so no one is allowed to complain that spending is too high anymore! We gave you right-wingers exactly what you wanted, so we deserve a little more of what we want. Now shut up while the debt keeps piling higher, in strict accordance with your Balanced Budget Amendment, of course.” The BBA would become the catch-all, “we tried your way and it obviously failed” response to any future conservative or libertarian argument against the growth of spending and debt, growth that would not be slowed in the slightest by the proposed amendment, much less reversed.

Summed up, the Balanced Budget Amendment would be catastrophic to the cause of reining in out-of-control government spending and the ever-growing national debt.

Okay, so I clearly think the BBA isn’t worth consideration as a solution to our government’s spending addiction, mostly because there are colanders with fewer holes. Of course, writing potential amendments to the Constitution must be pretty hard, and the usual response to criticism is “Let’s see you do better!”. While that response may be a pathetic attempt to shift attention away from valid criticisms, I gave it a shot. Why do we need such a large amendment, anyway? You’ve read the Constitution, right? It’s tiny. The reason for that is the Founders wrote our Constitution in plain, unambiguous language without the legalese so common in today’s legal documents. In keeping with that tradition, the meat of my version of the BBA spans a whopping three sentences:

The sum of all expenditures of the Government of the United States shall not exceed the Government’s total tax receipts during the previous fiscal year. So long as the Government owes any debt, no less than ten percent of the the Government’s total expenditures must be dedicated to paying off any such debts.

Upon approval by two thirds of State legislatures, approval by two thirds of each house of the United States Congress, and a Declaration of War by the United States Congress, military spending may cause the sum of all expenditures of the Government to exceed one hundred percent of the Government’s total tax receipts during the previous fiscal year so long as the sum of all other expenditures of the Government do not exceed sixty percent of the Government’s total tax receipts during the previous fiscal year and the requisite approvals are acquired anew within ten days of the start of each fiscal year.

For only three sentences, it’s a little on the longish side since I felt the need to bash “constitutional scholars” (read: those people who try to find new and innovative ways to ignore the plain meanings of our founding document) over the head with a cluebat every few words, but I think it covers all the bases: Mandates both Congress and the President enforce the spending limit (Congress would be in breach of the Constitution by passing a bill authorizing excess spending while the President, as Executive, would be bound to enforce the amendment or be in violation of his office), forces any increase in spending to be delayed until after taxes are increased to account for the higher spending (in other words, the government would be forced to use the money it has already collected instead of spending based on rosy-lens predictions of impossibly good tax receipts, and people would be taxed ahead of time for government growth), forces the repayment of all government debt, and still leaves an exception for the exceptional needs of true wartime. I’m sure there are parts that need some work and the equivalents of the BBA’s Sections 9 through 11 probably need added (a simple definitions section would also shorten up the main part quite a bit), but it’s still amazing what a fellow can come up with in a whole eight minutes (three originally, five more to revise the first sentence into two for clarity) when he’s not concerned with adding “outs”. Maybe our representatives should give it a try. Even if they were just trying to give enough compromise to get some of their partisan opponents on board, what they’ve compromised is the proposed amendment’s ability to deliver on its promise.


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