The House is voting today on (get this) a “Balanced Budget Amendment.” House Joint Resolution 2 has some nice rhetoric by saying, “Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year,” and “The limit on the debt of the United States held by the public shall not be increased,” but this is the same Congress which passed a $1.3T spending bill just a few weeks ago.
There’s also this little nugget in both Sections 1 and 2 saying the entire balanced budget notion can be tossed out if “three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.”
It’s even more toothless when you get into Section 5.
The Congress may waive the provisions of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war is in effect. The provisions of this article may be waived for any fiscal year in which the United States is engaged in military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so declared by a joint resolution, adopted by a majority of the whole number of each House, which becomes law. Any such waiver must identify and be limited to the specific excess or increase for that fiscal year made necessary by the identified military conflict.
Since we’re Team America: World Police there’s no doubt Congress could and would vote each year to suspend the balanced budget without fail. It’s not like Congress has ever tried to roll back spending cuts before, or the mechanism put in place to enact spending cuts.
Other problems were pointed out by Coalition To Reduce Government Spending President Jonathan Bydlak in The Hill.
The 2013 debt ceiling vote is particularly instructive and highlights another glaring defect in H. J. Res. 2. While the proposal requires a three-fifths vote for increasing the debt ceiling, it contains no such provision for waiving or suspending it.
In other words, those latter options are fair game with a simple majority. Lest you think this is an unlikely hypothetical, remember that suspensions have become the new normal, occurring in 2013, 2015 and, most recently, in 2017.
Bydlak also noted the wording of the BBA could also give the executive more power (emphasis mine).
Taken literally, Goodlatte’s requirement that “total outlays … not exceed total receipts” places no constraint on Congress’ power to appropriate, but rather prohibits the Treasury from releasing funds in excess of the “receipts” that it collects.
Having sworn to “faithfully execute” any ratified BBA, a president could credibly claim that refusing to release excess outlays from the Treasury would be a proper means of faithful execution — perhaps the only means.
Since the amendment imposes no scheme of payment priorities, the president would have sole discretion over which funds to withhold in order to ensure that there is no excess of outlays over receipts.
The net effect of the bill, then, is that it would create a virtually unlimited, albeit implied, impoundment power, flying in the face of the rules outlined in the 1974 Budget Act, and creating a tension that few in Congress have acknowledged.
Look, the legislation has some nice rhetoric on fiscal sanity, but it’s just a make-believe piece of legislation meant to win votes in November. To quote The Joker from Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker on today’s sham vote.
There are certainly solutions to this conundrum with Bydlak suggesting the Constitution should be amended to get rid of the Borrowing Clause. It’s a step in the right direction, but my concern is whether the executive would seize more power to borrow money for budgeting. The only true way for there to actually be a balanced budget is to get the right people put in Congress, and hold them accountable. It’s the biggest problem conservatives and libertarians have had with Congress critters who go to DC swearing they don’t want to spend more than they take in, then completely change tactics once on Capitol Hill.
I’m reminded of something Mercatus Institute’s Veronique de Rugy told me about soon-to-be former Speaker Paul Ryan, “I think his heart is in the right place…but he is driven by politics, a lot of the time.” She also said Ryan believed in free markets, but made anti-free market decisions, “when push came to shove.” This happens to most Congressional members, unless your name appears to be either Justin Amash or Thomas Massie, and it’s infuriating. The allure of power and government expansion is so intoxicating, so mesmerizing, it’s almost impossible to walk away from, just like it’s almost impossible to sit there and say, “Okay…can’t spend more than we take in.”
The other issue is an education issue because there’s the belief people in Congress need to get stuff for their district. The Constitution doesn’t say that, it only says they’re chosen by the people of the state. Yes, they represent their district but it doesn’t mean they try to appropriate money to help its economy. It will take a concerted effort to wipe the minds of Americans of this thought, something which won’t happen in my lifetime. It may never happen, given the fact the federal government has constantly overreached its power dating back to George Washington’s administration. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
It’s nice Congress is considering a Balanced Budget Amendment, but the thing isn’t really going to do anything to help with fiscal sanity. It’s a political farce, especially given the budget just passed. It can’t be a “show vote,” as North Carolina Congressman Mark Walker told Politico. It has to be one which has teeth, which means there can’t be any mechanism to overturn the balanced budget. It’s doubtful Congress would ever consider that, but one can hope.
The simplest solution…just cut spending.