In some quarters, this would be considered irony, if not satire. In Washington DC, it’s called “election season.” Jake Sherman reports in Politico’s Playbook that House Republicans plan to introduce a constitutional amendment requiring balanced budgets when Congress returns from its current recess. It comes a fortnight or so after passing a massive, deficit-dripping omnibus bill for FY2018:
SCOOP — HOUSE REPUBLICANS will take up a balanced-budget amendment when they return from recess, several sources tell us. This follows on the heels of their $1.3-trillion budget bill and their massive tax bill. WHY DO THIS NOW? Here’s what we think: It’s almost election season, and it would be helpful if GOP lawmakers could go home and be able to say they voted to support balancing the federal budget, even though they voted boosted discretionary spending by a ton, and have not touched entitlement spending, which, they have said for years, is the driver of U.S. budget deficits.
Is it a good idea? The answer to that is a qualified yes, but the hypocrisy is difficult to ignore. One can make an argument that the tax cuts in December would eventually provide more economic benefits than it costs, especially since it involves people keeping their own money, and retain some credibility as fiscal conservatives. One can also argue that the budget deal was a necessity for rebuilding the military and we all need to pitch in for that task while retaining at least a little credibility on budget matters. Putting the two together in the same year, especially while pointedly ignoring years of promises to address entitlement reform, makes a mockery of pretensions for fiscal discipline.
Bear in mind that this proposal would get floated out in parallel to the FY2019 appropriations process. Spending levels have already been agreed between the parties on that budget, too, with the second half of the $300 billion in additional spending from this month’s compromise due to be spent. Republicans will almost literally be throwing money with one hand while pledging to be fiscally responsible with the other.
Perhaps Republicans hope to atone with the balanced budget amendment. That depends on how it’s written, however. Without a cap on taxation, a simple balanced budget amendment could end up forcing Congress to raise taxes rather than cut spending. And without entitlements (and interest payments on the national debt) being part of that restriction, it’s not going to mean much anyway.
It takes two-thirds in both the House and the Senate to approve a constitutional amendment and send it off to the states for ratification. How many Democrats will vote for taxation caps and limits on entitlement spending? A few, perhaps, but a few Republicans might balk at those, too. It’d be lucky to get a simple majority. Any hopes for a real balanced-budget amendment would have to come from an Article V convention driven by the states, not the Congress that would get handcuffed by a balanced-budget requirement.
It makes for a useful midterm political argument, to be sure. But it’s just as likely to indict Republicans as Democrats in this instance.
Update: If you want to know how seriously to take this proposal, just remember how many of the same people voted to ignore the sequestration limits earlier this month. And those limits didn’t even force Congress to balance a budget, just not to spend more than the increases previously set.