By: George Noga – Updated March 10, 2014
A balanced budget amendment (“BBA”) is favored by 80% of all Americans in the belief it will, once and for all time, force fiscal discipline on the government. They are putting way too many eggs in the BBA basket. Watch out what you wish for. If there is a BBA, all those eggs will end up scrambled into a rather unpalatable omelet.
There are myriad paths through, over, under and around a BBA. In short, it would not be worth the paper it was written on – assuming it can garner two-thirds majorities in Congress and ratification by 38 states. Following is a partial list of ways a BBA could be eviscerated.
- A BBA appears simple but is complex. How do you define budget; what does balanced mean; what is a tax? It would be the only part of the Constitution that could be waived.
- What are allowable exceptions such as for military actions and natural disasters? There will be escape hatches big enough to drive a truck through. Whatever exceptions are carved out for some things, expect many more of such things. How would waivers work?
- How would a BBA deal with economic cycles? Revenues can both skyrocket and plunge from year to year. Are we to slash spending in a recession and be profligate in a boom? How do we define recession and boom? How is a BBA to be managed over the course of an entire economic cycle without opening to door to great mischief?
- Lawsuits will tie up a BBA for decades and federal judges will wind up with enormous power to change it. Consider how the federal bench has dealt with desegregation and busing; they still are entangling themselves over 60 years after the initial ruling.
- How do we distinguish capital expenditures from annual expenses? Surely, the argument will go, a BBA was not meant to include infrastructure spending that has a life of 50 years. If capital is treated differently, more expenditures will be classified as such.
- How do we address off-budget spending such as by Fannie, Freddie, USPS and the Federal Reserve? Who will prevent government from creating scores of new off-budget entities? Do we exempt interest on the debt; what happens when interest rates skyrocket?
- Watch out for so-called special taxing districts; these are favorites of local government with 50,000 nationwide. If they are not under the BBA ambit, they will mushroom.
- Are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and civilian/military pensions to be part of the regular budget? Are they no longer to be considered off budget entitlements?
- User fees will sharply increase and the government will be creative in imposing new ones. Be prepared to pay handsomely for everything you get from Washington – how about $100 to file a paper income tax return or $50 to get into a national park?
- Loan guarantees will become de rigueur as a way to fund programs off budget. After all, a loan guarantee is not an expenditure – is it?
- Instead of direct taxation, costly new regulations will flourish. Rather than spend tax money, Congress will bypass taxes and accomplish the same result through regulation.
- The tax code can be used for far more than raising taxes subject to a BBA. It can be larded with tax expenditures, incentives, penalties and all sorts of tomfoolery.
- Don’t forget mandates. Since the ObamaCare mandate survived judicial scrutiny, what is to stop government from substituting mandates for taxes or spending? The feds could mandate that states, counties, cities (and even people) spend money not subject to BBA.
- A budget can be balanced with tax increases. This would strictly comply with a BBA but tax increases are certainly not what BBA proponents intended.
Reluctantly, I have come to the view that a BBA is not the answer because: (1) we would expend lots of energy (perhaps for naught) enacting a BBA better spent elsewhere; (2) it will not work for all the reasons noted supra; (3) it would beguile us into falsely believing the problem is solved once and for all; (4) many of us would declare victory and move on while the other side would keep fighting; and (5) you can’t take the politics out of politics.
The solution is to remain engaged permanently, albeit this is contradictory to human nature. Once a problem appears solved, we tend to go back about our private business. But big government and its acolytes never stop and neither must we. As seductive as it may seem, a balanced budget amendment is fool’s gold; it is not the Holy Grail.