Plans are in the works for a House vote this month on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — a project that is hard to take seriously after Congress in recent months has approved large, deficit-financed tax cuts and budget-busting increases in defense and domestic spending.
Indeed, the current circumstances seem to perfectly illustrate that political rhetoric about a balanced budget amendment often serves merely as a smokescreen for irresponsible fiscal policy decisions.
Voters should not let themselves be distracted from the fact that elected officials — far from balancing the federal budget — are actually increasing deficits and the national debt at a rapid pace. President Trump and some Republican lawmakers even want to increase the government borrowing faster through another round of deficit-financed tax cuts.
The idea of a balanced budget amendment has some understandable appeal for people who are frustrated by irresponsible fiscal policies, alarmed by the rising debt and concerned about leaving it to their children and grandchildren to pay off.
But amending the Constitution is a difficult, time-consuming process, and the odds of a balanced budget amendment actually passing are slim. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is expected to return to the trillion-dollar-plus level in the next fiscal year.
In any case, as The Concord Coalition has pointed out in the past, it would be very difficult in practice to force elected officials to balance the federal budget every year.
One big concern: Deficits may be justified as the result of recessions, wars or other national emergencies. For this reason, a balanced budget amendment that failed to include some exceptions could make a bad situation worse.
But with exceptions would come the potential for abuse and legal quibbles — and the possibility that budget policy would end up being litigated in the courts. Elected officials, after all, have repeatedly proven to be adept at getting around mechanisms that were designed to enforce fiscal responsibility.
In addition, the most economically meaningful target would be not a specific deficit number but for the national debt to grow more slowly than the economy. What is particularly troubling about the current situation is that the debt is growing more rapidly than a fairly strong economy.
Fortunately, lawmakers and presidents don’t need a constitutional amendment to put the federal budget on a more sustainable path. They should not use the lack of such an amendment as an excuse for the huge gap between government revenue and spending.
Elected officials have passed balanced budgets in the past. They can staunch the flow of red ink again by setting priorities, negotiating differences and making difficult decisions based on long-term thinking rather than short-term political calculations.