The Truth About the Balanced Budget Amendment
In case you’re not keeping track, it has been nearly 1,000 days since the United States Senate passed a budget. Meanwhile, America’s fiscal nightmare keeps growing, and those on the left—including Members of the Senate—keep advocating for even more spending despite America’s $15 trillion national debt. That’s an important record to keep in mind as the Senate votes today on two versions of the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA).
A BBA is constructive, but it’s not the final answer to America’s fiscal woes despite the tools it offers—in large part because it fails to tackle entitlement reform, the most detrimental driver of spending in this country. A BBA is not a neatly packed solution, as no constitutional amendment can replace the hard work of true spending reforms.
However, Republicans ensured earlier this year that the 2011 Budget Control Act required a vote on a BBA. Their commitment to ending big government’s reckless behavior was well-meaning but flawed, and a BBA has already failed in the House.
The proposed amendment being debated in the Senate was chosen from several previous versions and is sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R–UT), Mike Lee (R–UT), and John Cornyn (R–TX), among others. It is stricter and it fundamentally differs from its counterpart in the House, but it still lacks in several areas.
Cornyn spoke at The Heritage Foundation last month about the BBA, saying that the American people are “justifiably very skeptical of Washington” right now. “I think we need to prove to them that we are serious about solving the problem, not that we are just going through the motions,” Cornyn said. “I think [a BBA] is called for under the circumstances we are in.”
The proposed amendment addresses many key issues requiring disciplinary action on the $15 trillion federal debt. These include a spending cap of 18 percent of GDP, a three-fifths vote to raise the debt ceiling, and a two-thirds votes to raise taxes—all helpful actions to getting America back on the right path. It also requires that the President submit a balanced budget to Congress every year.
While the details of this proposal are an improvement to some of the previous, weaker BBA proposals, it still doesn’t solve America’s spending problem.
The Heritage Foundation has supported and covered extensively our ideas for a balanced budget in the Saving the American Dream plan. A major component of that plan would be to undertake entitlement reform by amending existing federal laws that provide permanent or indefinite appropriations to federal agencies or programs. This BBA does not provide this kind of essential direction for long-term budget maintenance.
As Heritage’s David Addington has noted, an appropriate BBA should be intentionally focused on driving down spending, taxation, and borrowing. Such focus is especially important right now because of the massive federal debt and these yet-to-be reformed entitlement programs.
Even more importantly, a supermajority must be able to temporarily waive a BBA if it is crucial to national security, as such is the first constitutional priority of the federal government.
The Lee version of the BBA permits only a partial waiver when the U.S. is engaged in a congressionally authorized “military conflict”—and the particulars can get sticky. The flexibility for national security is essential if a BBA is to be amended to the Constitution.
An acceptable BBA should also provide its own enforcement and prevent government from borrowing money to meet the balance requirement. Any loopholes that contradict the BBA’s overall purpose will serve only to push America further from fiscal prosperity.
As Heritage’s Matt Spalding explained just before the failed House vote last month, Congress should be taking every opportunity it has to first and foremost cut and cap federal spending:
A part of the long-term agenda to rein in government is an appropriate and sound amendment to the Constitution that would keep federal spending under control in subsequent years. Indeed, the principal reason for adopting a balanced budget constitutional amendment is to limit the size and scope of the federal government by limiting its spending.
Despite its weaknesses, the BBA retains worthy components, making it harder to raise taxes by requiring a two-thirds super-majority of both houses.
As Hatch said in conference call with bloggers on Monday, the BBA “will finally put a straightjacket on Washington’s ability to continue profligate spending of the American people’s money.”
He said that the failure of the congressional super committee to reach an agreement to cut between $1.2 and $1.6 trillion from the federal debt over the next 10 years demonstrated a need for a BBA.
But it’s important to be cautious when approaching what some have deemed the answer to America’s fiscal disaster.
In his post, Spalding highlighted the complications in passing a BBA:
While considerable work has been done to develop a robust amendment, questions of amendment language (both in terms of operational construction and enforcement) have not yet sufficiently been resolved to meet the high and deliberative standard of the United States Constitution.
Like the House version, the Senate BBA is not expected to pass today, which will leave more quality time for consideration of what is best for renewing America’s course to fiscal repair.
Amending the Constitution requires that the American people have sufficient time to converse and comprehend the implications such a change would bring. The Senate should consider carefully today all the factors involved now and in the future for a BBA.