The People’s Balanced Budget Amendment
May 16, 2012
Have you taken the Balanced Budged Pledge?
One proposed solution: amend the Constitution to require that the budget be balanced every year.
Now a couple of activists from the grassroots have come up with a creative new way for Us the People to band together and make it happen: the Balanced Budget Pledge. The idea is simple yet sophisticated: We pledge not to support (monetarily or otherwise) any congressional candidate who has not promised to support a balanced-budget amendment. If enough of us sign on, it will become impossible for any candidate to get elected without supporting the amendment.
I will not send money to and I will not support any Senate or Congressional Candidate until that candidate has agreed to pass the People’s Balanced Budget Amendment or a substantively similar Amendment*
It’s all at We Demand a Balanced Budget .com. It’s kind of a cool Web site. If you scroll down on the main page, a shaded map shows how many people in each state have signed the pledge so far. An easy-to-read two-column page shows which sitting members of Congress have signed on, with the option for any non-incumbent candidates to opt in. (My congressman is on board!) Meanwhile those officeholders and candidates can see which of their constituents have taken the pledge.
They also offer some fun gimmicks. They need donations to maintain the Web site and spread the word. For a $15 donation, they’ll send a physical piggy bank (bearing the People’s Balanced Budget Amendment logo) to a congressman or senator of your choice. For $50, they’ll send three piggy banks and three printed letters about the amendment, to your congressman and both senators.
The Web site also tries to make the national deficit, and the scale of the problem, easy to understand.
I think it’s a good idea. I’m aware of three arguments that have been made against proposed balanced-budget amendments in general: self-enforcement, judicial enforcement, and enforced taxation. I think the People’s Balanced Budget Amendment (PBBA) answers them all.
1 — Self-enforcement
This argument says that the main enforcer of this limit on Congress’s spending would naturally be Congress itself. If Congress is capable of such spending restraint (cough), a constitutional amendment would be superfluous. If not, an amendment would be unenforceable and therefore worthless.
But I’m told that even mere statutory (i.e., non-constitutional) limits were enforced, when we had them:
The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985, which enacted automatic federal spending cuts if the deficit exceeded predefined targets, went through hell, high water, and the federal courts before its provisions were allowed to kick in. But when they did kick in, they worked. They worked with a hard and furious vengeance: The deficit was reduced from $221 billion in 1986 to $153 billion in 1989, from 5.2 percent of GDP to 2.8 percent of GDP. In fact, Gramm-Rudman worked so well that Congress, facing real spending constraints for the first time, killed the act, replacing it with the toothless Budget Enforcement Act of 1990.
A subset of this argument is that Congress will in practice enlarge the “emergency” loophole in any balanced-budget amendment until they can drive a train through it, defining “emergency” down until the amendment is no limit at all. But the PBBA requires two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress to declare an emergency. Some specious emergencies may still slip through, but I think requiring a supermajority changes the dynamic considerably.
2 — Judicial enforcement
This argument says that if Congress, failing to comply with the amendment, passes a budget that is not balanced, someone will sue to enforce the limit, and judges will have to wade into the messy legislative business of deciding what spending to cut or (worse) raise taxes. But I think the PBBA makes the latter impossible: It does not limit this year’s spending to this year’s revenue, but to the average of the previous three years’ revenue (great idea!). If a judge raises taxes in this year, it will do nothing to relax the limit on this year’s spending; and so, presumably, no judge would do it.
As to the possibility that judges would end up cutting spending, the text of the PBBA provides for Congress to enforce it, but in the event that judges did, I’m not sure I can imagine any scenario in which their doing so would be worse than the impending debt crisis.
3 — Enforced taxation
Whether by judges or (due to asymmetrical political pressure) Congress, this argument says that to balance the budget, taxes would be raised, rather than spending cut. But again, the PBBA answers that argument: Spending is limited to the average of the previous three years’ revenue, not the current year’s revenue. Raising taxes now enables more spending only in the future.
A further, stronger answer would be to include another limit on total federal spending (say, to 18% of GDP, likewise measured by averaging the last three years) within the amendment. This would be an alternative “substantively similar” form of the amendment, explicitly endorsed by the PBBA.
No doubt there are other arguments I haven’t heard yet, but the vast majority of states already have balanced-budget requirements (National Conference of State Legislatures, NCSL again, Wikipedia); why not the federal government?
I’ve taken the pledge. Have you?
Correction (May 17th, 2012): changed heading 3 from “Enforced spending” to “Enforced taxation”.