May 20, 2018
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The pitfalls of a balanced-budget amendment

Charles Dharapak | AP
Charles Dharapak | AP
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah (second from left) talks with Republican colleagues, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, before discuss the introduction of legislation for a balanced budget amendment. From left are, Hatch; Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.; Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.; Sen. .John Cornyn, R-Texas; Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.


A balanced-budget amendment sounds to many like a great idea. Three-quarters of Americans say they favor it, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

The debt-increase bill, now signed into law, commits Congress to vote before the end of this year on passage of a joint resolution proposing a balanced-budget amendment. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, generally moderate Republicans, and Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, voted for it. Of Maine’s delegation, only Rep. Chellie Pingree voted no.

If both houses pass the joint resolution by the required two-thirds vote, it bypasses the president and goes straight to the 50 states for the necessary ratification by three-quarters, or 38, of them.

Serious hurdles lie ahead. The debt-increase law says nothing about details of a balanced-budget amendment. Pending bills differ. There will be disputes over whether to require a three-fifths vote or a stiffer two-thirds vote for spending in excess of receipts. One bill limits spending to 18 percent of gross national product, others 20 percent. A tea party preference would make it practically impossible for future Congresses to raise taxes by requiring a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

Lawsuits look inevitable if the amendment should come into effect. As a Washington Post commentator put it, “Like activist judges? Then you’ll love the balanced-budget amendment.”

A curious and debatable provision of the bill is a waiver of all restrictions in time of war. No other part of the Constitution may be waived.

The best argument against a balanced-budget amendment is that it would prevent government spending to fill the greatest current need: to provide more jobs. Keynesian economics has a good point in prescribing deficit spending in bad times, while in good times, as an economist once put it, “taxing to the bone, and maybe taking some of the bone.”

Another objection: If ratification dragged on and the advocates got restless, they might well revive the dangerous strategy of a constitutional convention, already favored by 32 states. In it, extremists could throw out the graduated income tax, the popular election of senators, or even the entire document.

Advocates of the amendment often argue that government, like individuals, must never live beyond its means. True enough in the long run, but how about the general practice of going into debt by taking out a home mortgage or a car loan?

Two reliably conservative publications have come out strongly against the amendment. The National Review wrote that it probably won’t pass Congress and that “it risks doing the worst disservice to the Constitution since Prohibition.” The Wall Street Journal called it “the wrong debt solution” and advised Republicans to “leave the Constitution out of it.”

The bottom line is that we send people to Congress to use their best judgment. If they tie their own hands, they can’t give us help when we need it.

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