May I commit heresy right here on Inkwell this morning? I don’t want a balanced budget amendment. I don’t know what my IWF colleagues here think on the issue. But I am calling myself a heretic because so many people who are serious about the financial future of the country do see a balanced budget amendment as the solution.
Moreover, I was skeptical when President Obama, who also does not want such an amendment, said we wouldn’t need it if our elected representatives in Washington will just to their jobs. I’d be more sanguine about the president’s approach if fewer members of Congress saw their jobs as the allocating of our money after they have required by law that we send it to Washington.
Still, I oppose an amendment. And I’ve got some pretty good company. Economist and columnist Robert J. Samuelson called the BBA (are you in the mood for jargon this morning?) “a bad idea.” The reason is that such an amendment would, in Samuelson’s opinion, go against the very nature of the Constitution:
The Constitution is the repository of the nation’s basic political principles. This is why it commands public respect. What the Constitution is not (and should not become) is a handbook for the day-to-day operations of government. The fatal flaw of the BBA is that it would take the Constitution in precisely this direction. It not only says the budget should be balanced, but one Republican version says it should be balanced at 18 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). That’s not a principle; it’s an instruction. Why not 17 percent or 22 percent of GDP? What happens in a national emergency?
On a more practical level, Samuelson says that an amendment could put the government in a situation that forces it to make a recession worse, inspire evasion by driving economic activity into “independent authorities,” and , of course, it would most likely take years to pass.
Samuelson also notes that a balanced budget amendment could turn budget debates into constitutional crises. Yale Law Professor Peter H. Schuck offers some other reasons to avoid a balanced budget amendment in today’s Wall Street Journal. Schuck writes:
I can think of no other law that would empower judges to exercise more political and policy-making discretion than a balanced budget amendment. It would quickly realize every conservative’s fears of an “imperial judiciary” that “legislates from the bench”-even if the courts simply did their job and did not grasp for that power.
First, the courts would be swamped with challenges to every governmental decision with significant budgetary implications, which means almost all important decisions. As federal Judge Ralph Winter pointed out long ago, the judges would have to decide who, if anyone, would have standing to sue and who the proper defendant would be. If they ruled that no one had standing, then the amendment would be legally unenforceable, a dead letter. If the judges found standing, however, a host of exceptionally controversial legal-interpretation issues would arise.
Let me propose something I think would be better than a balanced budget amendment: Congress needs to understand why our finances are so out of whack and find the courage to take drastic measures. Yuval Levin pinpoints the root of our terrible debt problem (hat tip: Peter Wehner):
That debt explosion-which will be at the heart of our politics in the coming years-is different and unprecedented, and we have seen in recent months that the Left is completely unprepared to understand it, and the Right (with much help from the indispensable Paul Ryan) is only starting to grasp it. Simply put, that debate is all about health-care entitlements. And I mean all… Our debt explosion is a health-entitlement explosion, and to address it we have to fix the fundamental structure of our health entitlements. That means above all replacing the fee for service structure of Medicare, which is the chief driver of inefficiency across our health-care system.
This is something that should be a key issue for GOP candidates in 2012, especially as, if they have any sense, they will put the enormously costly Obamacare in the forefront of their campaigns. I’d rather focus on repealing that monstrosity than adding something to the Constitution.