POL 101: Balanced Budget Nonsense (Part I)

Talk of passing a balanced budget amendment is nonsense.

Look, I understand the appeal of a balanced budget.  I, myself, would like a balanced budget, at least as a general proposition.*  Of course, to say that one wants a balanced budget one has to acknowledge that the implementation of such a measure would require one of the following:  massive cuts, massive tax increases, or some combination of both.  Indeed, the very debates we are having now over deficit reduction are nothing compared  to the debates needed to balance the budget—especially on a year-in, year-out basis.

Without getting into all of that for the moment, let’s get down to the basic issue:  amending the constitution is hard.

To wit:  to formally propose an amendment requires either a 2/3rds vote in both chambers of Congress or the request of 2/3rds of the states.  Since we have never gone the latter route, the former is what in on the table here.

So the fundamental question is:  what are the odds that 2/3rds of both chambers of the US Congress would agree to send a balance budget amendment to the ratification stage?**

Well, the partisan breakdown of the two chambers is as follows:

House:  240 (R), 192 (D), and 3 vacancies.  That means 55.2% Republican and 44.1% Democratic.  As such, it seems extremely unlikely that 67% of the chamber (290 votes) is likely to vote for the amendment.  Does anyone actually see 50 Democrats voting for the amendment?

Senate:  51 (D), 47 (R), and 2 Independents (both of whom caucus with the Ds).  So, that 53% D+I and 47 R.  Who among the readership sees 20 Democratic Senators joining the GOP to amend the constitution?

The numbers are utterly against a Republican initiative of this nature (and that is without even getting into the specifics of the proposal).  As such, this demand is nothing more than political theater and the GOP leadership has to know this.  As such, at least a third of the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” proposal is a joke from the get-go.  I state this, by the way, because the demand (as I understand it) is not just for a vote on an amendment, but on passage.  At least rhetorically (who knows what politicians actually believe) you can’t have cut, cap, and balance without the amendment passing.

In the next installment I will examine the text of the proposed amendment.

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*Of course, a major problem with balanced budgets is that there are issues of things like disasters, wars, and economic downturns (to name three) that make it all a lot more difficult to achieve that much of the rhetoric would suggest). That is yet another conversation.

**The options are either 3/4th of state legislatures or 3/4 of conventions called at the state level.  The legislature route is far more likely (we have only done the conventions route once).

FILED UNDER: Deficit and Debt, Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. ponce says:

    Is it really news that the Republicans are out of ideas?

    They’ve been out of ideas for 30 years.

  2. john personna says:

    I don’t think an ammendment would be terrible, but as a “proposed solution” it is.

    They cynically except their audience to accept that it could be done quickly and then as you say that it would make budgeting easier.

    I hope the audience is smarter.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Look, I understand the appeal of a balanced budget. I, myself, would like a balanced budget, at least as a general proposition.

    To will the end you must will the means. If you’d like a balanced budget, then it makes sense to propose a mechanism for accomplishing it. That’s the difference between a fantasy balanced budget and a real one. It’s one thing to say that in theory you support the idea but in practice you don’t and another to that that you support the idea as a general proposition.

  4. john personna says:

    Right Dave, but this proposal is attractive to the GOP for the opposite reason, because it is a proposal they think they can sell without details.

    If it isn’t “real” that’s an advantage, especially when compared to real pain in any serious plan.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    If progressives to do want a balanced budget amendment, then what is there plan to keep shot term thinking politicians from kicking the problem down the road. Congress cannot make any budget commitment that cannot be broken in the future. Conservative voters cannot vote out all of the pork barreling, big spending Congressmen.

    It governments want to start wars, then they should raise taxes to pay for them. If politicians want to be prepared for natural disasters, then they should set the money aside or raise taxes.

    What people are really scared of is that people will want a lot less government if the taxpayers have to start paying full retail (plus interest) for it.

  6. @superdestroyer:

    Conservative voters cannot vote out all of the pork barreling, big spending Congressmen

    Perhaps a place to start a reasonable discussion is the recognition that “pork barreling” and “big spending” aren’t limited to a particular ideological or partisan label.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps a place to start a reasonable discussion is the recognition that “pork barreling” and “big spending” aren’t limited to a particular ideological or partisan label.

    Exactly…as if pork barrel spending isn’t showered on conservative districts? Please…

  8. Console says:

    If you want a balanced budget, then make a balanced budget. This is the same sort of problem I have with goldbugs. A world in which a balanced budget amendment can pass is a world in which you don’t need a balanced budget amendment, just like a world in which a country can adhere to a gold standard is a world where you can trust a country with a fiat currency.

    Laws and rules aren’t magical powers unto themselves.

  9. Liberty60 says:

    @Console:
    My thoughts as well- they feverishly propose an amendment to the Constitution, as if there is something forcing them to pass unbalanced budgets- why don’t they pretend as if there were a BBA and pass a budget that is balanced?

    Because they don’t want to.

    Balancing the budget would require painful choices and sacrifice, and things like imaginary Constitutional amendments and blue ribbon panels and bipartisan commissions are simply the deus ex machina of politicians unable to paint their way out of a corner.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    Without a mechanism to force a balanced budget, any politicains that proposes a balanced budget will be accused of wanting to starve someone and that politicians will suffer.

    A balanced budget amendment forces everyone to have skin the the game. If someone wants more spending, then they will be forced to either cut spending somewhere else or raise taxes. The current system encourages deficit spending and giving people government with a discount.

    Nitpicking others does not help in developing a system to ensure that budgets are balanced. Saying that good politicians is all that is required means more of the same and more debt, bigger deficits, and more pork barrel spending.

  11. Liberty60 says:

    @superdestroyer:
    A mechanism is simply a set of words on paper, until someone enforces it. Look at the War Powers Act- if no one enforces it, it is just a forgotten piece of paper.

    The American people have embraced the fairytale that they can have massive spending with inim taxation, and the BBA is just another fairytale gimmick that promises to do what we refuse to do.

    Or look at it this way- suppose we had a BBA right now- our deficit is a full 1/3 of the federal budget- would anyone- the Tea Party, the liberals, the mainstream Dems and GOP- accept the draconian steps required, such as slashing the Pentagon budget, or raising taxes dramatically?

    We already have our answer!
    Look over these very threads on this blog- conservative after conservative has angrily demanded that we cut spending IMMEDIATELY, and balance the budget IMMEDIATELY….yet when pressed for which areas to cut, they fall silent or change the subject.

    There is no mechanism that can save people who don’t want to be saved.

  12. john personna says:

    Well super, it’s a proposal designed for people who want magic tomorrow, rather than hard choices today.

    And painfully ironic that they can convince anyone that it is a fast or sure course.

    It’s a stall, a way to keep from the specific cuts for another few months – ideally until after the 2012 elections.

    You get that right, try to win congress first, then try to pass the amendment, and then finally name the cuts.

  13. Jib says:

    @superdestroyer:

    You hope that is true but I think what you and conservatives really fear is that people will do just the opposite. They will want more govt and be more than willing to raise taxes to pay for it. Especially taxes on other people which means rich, corporations, the investor class, the people who get the most tax welfare at this time I.e. the people who get the biggest tax loop holes.

    How else do you explain a balance budget amendment that also limits govt spending and makes it very hard to raise taxes? Why do you need that if you think people will choice less govt? If you are correct should not a balanced budget amendment do that on its own make smaller govt?

  14. john personna says:

    “Mechanism” doesn’t make sense if you look into it. 235 years of budgets have been plain laws. Suddenly that’s no good. It has no “mechanism.”

    They must think their audience is pretty stupid.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    @Jib:

    If people had to pay full retail, most of them would accept less government. Even the progressive rich take every take deduction that they can get. Americans make lousy socialist and if you tried to raise taxes to the 35% of GDP that it would take of fund current programs, the level of cheating and corruption would skyrocket. Look at the Southern European countries to see how much people are willing to really pay taxes or the consumer prices required to fund the taxes. People just will not pay them.

  16. jukeboxgrad says:

    The idea of a balanced budget amendment (BBA) has a long history. A good summary of that history is at wikipedia.

    A few days ago, the Heritage Foundation posted a detailed history:

    Attempts at passing a balanced budget amendment (BBA) date back to the 1930s, and all have been unsuccessful. Both parties carry some of the blame: The GOP too often has been neglectful of the issue, and the Democratic Left, recognizing a threat to big government, has stalled and obfuscated, attempting to water down any proposals to mandate balanced budgets. …

    The GOP was also guilty of abandoning the BBA—by neglect. The BBA had been the number one item on its Contract with America legislative agenda in 1994, but after the single (and successful) 1995 House vote, House GOP leaders refused all entreaties to bring it up again. No House or Senate vote has been held since Torricelli’s dramatic about-face in 1997.

    … the versions considered in the ’90s were notably weaker than both the House and Senate versions of the BBA-plus now being considered.

    At reason.com is a detailed analysis from 1995 explaining why BBA is a deceptive gimmick that won’t work. Maybe today’s “BBA-plus” would actually work, but there’s no reason to think it could pass, when weaker proposals repeatedly failed to pass.

  17. Eric Florack says:

    Of course, to say that one wants a balanced budget one has to acknowledge that the implementation of such a measure would require one of the following: massive cuts, massive tax increases, or some combination of both.

    Of course! But, given the current situation is unsustainable, that choice is forced on us, BBA or no.

    As for those telling us a BBA won’t work, what of the states that have them?

  18. WR says:

    @Eric Florack: Umm, Erick? States are not the Federal government.

  19. Console says:

    What of the states that have them? California has a balanced budget amendment for starters.

    Stop believing in magic and fairytales. A government’s laws are only as good as the government itself.

  20. john personna says:

    The sad thing is that the amendment path is both slower and less certain than a good deal, now.

    It’s also sad that the GOP tells its troops to take a smaller spending cut now, in order to avoid a small tax increase, and to set up for the amendment sometime in the future.

    You want “mechanism?” What’s the mechanism to actually pass this thing, and when?

    Of course, if you cynically don’t care, and only want to avoid tax now, you don’t really care that you can’t pass the amendment this year, or next.

  21. sam says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    @superdestroyer:

    Conservative voters cannot vote out all of the pork barreling, big spending Congressmen

    Perhaps a place to start a reasonable discussion is the recognition that “pork barreling” and “big spending” aren’t limited to a particular ideological or partisan label.

    Indeed. Freshman Republicans Lobby Federal Agencies For Millions Amid Spending Critiques. I suppose, if pressed, they will bachmannize the requests: Bachmann: Transportation projects shouldn’t be earmarks.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Without a mechanism to force a balanced budget, any politicains that proposes a balanced budget will be accused of wanting to starve someone and that politicians will suffer.

    It was just eleven short years ago, that both Democrats and Republicans were absolutely demonized for producing a balance budget. It’s no wonder they don’t ever want to go there again!

    The BBA is a waste of time and more cheap passing of the buck. “Stop me before I spend again!”