Balanced Budget Amendment – Yes or no?
There are many good people who believe that the way to (federal) government fiscal sanity is through a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Recently, I heard a speech by a close friend in which he outlined a three-point plan to save the republici. A balanced budget amendment was one of the three, but is that really as good of an idea as it might at first seem? Or, might the Law of Unintended Consequences show its all-too-familiar face and bite us in the … well, bite us?
Congress needs to be required to live within its means, right? I mean, after all, that’s what we all must do, right? Right. Nearly all Republicans, probably a majority of independents, and maybe even a half-dozen or so Democrats will probably agree this far. The question is, then, how best to bring it about? There is much talk these days of a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. Wouldn’t that do it? Wouldn’t that be a good idea?
Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said that, when confronted with an important decision, he would, as an aid in making the correct choice, take a sheet of paper and draw a vertical line down the middle. On one side, he would record the the advantages, as he saw them, of a particular course of action, and on the other side he would record the disadvantages. If it worked for ol’ Ben, then maybe we should try it, too, so, not surprisingly, we shall.
As far as our issue goes, the primary advantage is that, under a balanced budget amendment, Congress would be required to, well, balance the budget, meaning that revenue would have to equal spending, and that would most certainly happen.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will ignore the facts that a balanced budget amendment, or BBA, would take years to wend its way through the system and become law (except for the possible exception mentioned below) and that this country may not have enough time left to see it through. There are, however, many other potential disadvantages that we may consider:
We tried. Really, we did!
First of all (remember that we know Congress well), it is unlikely that any BBA passed by our congressional friends would actually have any teeth, and they might, for example, pass an amendment carefully worded in such a way as to guarantee that it would never be ratified by a sufficient number of states.
The Devil made me do it!
We should all keep in mind that there are two ways to reconcile an out of balance budget – cuts in spending and tax increases. Would a balanced budget amendment give Congress the cover that they need to do what they always wanted to do but couldn’t?
Trickery, chicanery, bribery, and artful dodgery.
If we agree that the budget would, in fact, be balanced, then the question becomes, how would that be accomplished? Knowing Congress as we do, we are acutely aware that their little bag of tricks is actually a huge trunk that has no bottom, and that knowledge might give us an idea of how it might go. Just recently, for example, we have witnessed how a promised $100 billion in budget cuts became a claimed $38.5 billion and was subsequently revealed by the Congressional Budget Office to actually be only a paltry $352 million. Why, then, should we expect that a potential budget balancing crisis would fare any differently? Ever hear of “off-budget” spending items?
We’ll do it tomorrow. Honest we will!
How many times have we seen current tax increases or spending increases traded for future spending cuts that never come? And do we all know that every year a new Congress convenes and that no current Congress can obligate any future Congress to do anything?
Gore them oxen! Okay, but whose?
Under a BBA, it is inevitable that regular budget crises will arise, and when they do, oxen will become gored. Count on it. Just whose oxen will get the treatment, though, will naturally depend upon which group of inmates happens to be in control of the asylum at that point in time. If it happens to be the Democrats, then you can be assured of two things: (1) that the defense spending ox will occupy the front-most spot in the goring line, and (2) that they will keep on running the poor thing back through until there is nothing left. Forget about Spanish, anybody for learning to speak Chinese?
Can you say Con-Con?
The aforementioned disadvantages of attempting a balanced budget amendment (BBA), while interesting and maybe even convincing, do not represent a direct and immediate threat to the survival of the republic. This one does.
It goes like this:
Suppose that popular support for a BBA was ginned up to a very high level. And, suppose that, even so, Congress refused to pass the amendment so that it could be sent to the states for ratification. People would become frustrated and angry, wouldn’t they? Or, suppose that Congress did pass the amendment but it became apparent that not enough states would ratify it to elevate it to law. Frustration and anger? You bet. Wouldn’t it be natural under such circumstances for popular frustration and anger to seek an alternate route to satisfaction, and might not that alternate route be a call for a Constitutional Convention, or, as it has come to be called, a Con-Con?
You might legitimately ask, if the states would not ratify a BBA, why should we expect that they would vote for a Constitutional Convention? That’s a good question, and there is a good answer: Constitutional experts tell us that it is not possible to limit such a convention to a particular issue, or course of action, and, once convened, the delegates, regardless of what they may have previously promised, would be free to go in whatever direction they chose. A Con-Con would, therefore, endow its delegates with enormous power to shape the future of this great nation, including the power to kill it should they so choose, and those in control of such things within the states might not be able to resist such a mammoth temptation to have their own names enshrined prominently (although probably written in Chinese) within the annals of history.
Unlikely, you say? Well, not so unlikely as you may at first suppose. You see, in 1983, the above scenario actually played out, and for the same reason, and we came within just four states of actually convening what would have been only the second Constitutional Convention in our country’s history. Just two states!
Your curiosity still unsatisfied, you might inquire as to what would have been so wrong with another convention? Another good question, and I would answer it by asking you to remember what happened at the first Con-Con? Recall that it was convened in 1787 in order to fix the problems in the then current national charter, The Articles of Confederation, which shortcomings had become revealed under the stress of war. Well, they fixed it all right. Need I point out here that our current national charter is not called The Articles of Confederation? If you know your history, then you know that how they fixed The Articles of Confederation was to throw it out – bath water, baby, soap, towel, and tub – and start over anew. Now, consider this very carefully – is there any single person alive today, or any group of people, with whom you would be willing to entrust the power to throw out the United States Constitution, thereby effectively dissolving the republic, and begin over?
A balanced budget amendment may at first appear to be a good thing and its pursuit relatively benign, but such a course is, in reality, fraught with danger. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that stands both ready and able to end this thing that we affectionately refer to as the American Experiment by devouring its very foundation. It is a Pandora’s Box of unimaginable danger that we were foolish enough to nearly open twenty-eight years ago. I was 34 at the time – plenty old enough to have understood the peril that our nation was facing, but I was young and foolish, and I must confess that, like many of my fellow Americans, I was embarrassingly oblivious to that which my ignorance had helped to bring about. Providence saved us from our own folly then. Do we really want to dig out the key to the box and try our luck for a second time? Do we? Or, might that possibly be like playing Russian Roulette with all but one chamber loaded, the hammer having already dropped upon the only empty one?
Bet you didn’t know this …
If the 1983 close call caused you a moment of concern, then think about this: Many people believe that we are sitting today just where we were in 1983 – only two states away from calling a Constitutional Convention! It only takes thirty-four states to call a convention, and thirty have already voted in that way. From a constitutional standpoint, the passage of twenty-eight years may not be relevant, and it may still be possible to call a convention with just four more states. While it’s true that some states, like Georgia and Virginia, have voted to rescind, or “take back”, their call for a convention*, this is new legal territory, and no one knows if it is constitutionally possible for a state to take back a convention call once it has been made. This situation makes efforts toward a balanced budget amendment even more dangerous.
[*Georgia has since passed another resolution to call a convention)
So, it seems to me that a call for any constitutional amendment would be dangerous, but a call for a balanced budget amendment would be especially dangerous, because we could just possibly be only four states shy of calling an Article V Convention for that very purpose.
Even though I respect both opinion and motive of those who are advocating for a balanced budget amendment, it is my sincere belief that they are wrong and that their efforts, instead of helping to save the republic, are, instead, further endangering it. The risk-reward ratio is way, way too far out of skew.
You may color me a solid “no” on this one.
(others may be added)
The New American Magazine
“In the Founders’ Corner A Balanced Budget Amendment?”
All articles in the New American constitute recommended required reading.
“The Effort to Dismantle Our Constitution”