Not All Balanced Budget Amendments Are Created Equal

As I write this now, HotAir’s Ed Morrissey is about 15 yards in front of me here at BlogCon 2011 in Denver, Colorado delivering a speech to a collection of bloggers and New Media types about, among other things, the state of the GOP primary and what the various results could mean for America, as well as the duties and responsibilities of the New Media in a hypothetical Republican administration.

“Even if we win in 2012,” Morrissey said, “we cannot be the cheerleading squad for the Republican Party.”

I couldn’t agree more.

That sentiment is at the heart of Morrissey’s piece yesterday on the danger of a “clean” Balanced Budget Amendment of the sort being voted on by House Republicans next week, danger that presents itself due to what is missing from this particular “clean” BBA plan: spending limits, and checks on tax increases such as a supermajority requirement.  From Morrissey’s piece:

The real problem in a “clean” BBA is the absence of a spending cap.  The versions championed by Jim DeMint and other Republicans had caps tied to GDP, ranging from 18% to 20%, depending on the version.  Without that, Congress can continue to expand spending, and then blame the BBA for the massive tax increases that follow — which is exactly how politicians in both parties will attempt to escape the political consequences of tax hikes. Democrats did this with their Pay-Go rule (which they ignored when inconvenient to their purposes); this is Pay-Go on steroids.

Plus, there is a very large Constitutional danger inherent in the clean BBA.  What happens if Congress fails to produce a balanced budget?  Lawsuits could be brought in federal court to challenge the constitutionality of an annual budget in any fiscal year.  Not only would that add even more delay and uncertainty to a budget process that has already gone off the rails in the last couple of years, it puts federal judges in position to amend budgets and require tax increases.

Frankly, but for the failure of House Republicans to understand their superior position in terms of public relations and common sense arguments back during the debt ceiling debate over this past summer, we would not be in this situation at all.  Throughout July and August of this year, I expressed my disapproval of the way Republicans handled that debate.

On August 1, 2011, I pointed out that the GOP developed and proposed five different plans to solve the debt problem and actually passed two of them through the House, putting the ball squarely in the court of Senate Democrats, who proceeded to table both bills.  “Who, exactly, is the party of ‘no’?” I asked.  “Who, exactly, is standing in the way of fiscal responsibility?”  Effective outreach by Republicans, I argued, could have forced the Democrats to admit that they had not proposed anything substantive, and in the process would have forced them to come out staunchly in favor of higher taxes, higher debt, and inevitable default. As an attorney, I understood and understand now that a win comes the very second that you’ve been able to get your opponent to argue your point for you.

Unfortunately, in the context of this “clean” BBA, not only are we arguing against ourselves, but it seems as though we are actively plotting against ourselves.  On July 26, 2011, I wrote the following:

As far as I’m concerned, and I said as much on WTMA-AM this morning, there are only two acceptable plans that I want to see come from the Republicans:

  • A long-term fix with significant cuts and binding reforms such as future spending caps, like the Spending Limit Amendment proposed in 2009 by Mike Pence and Jeb Hensarling, and a Balanced Budget Amendment like proposed in the House-passed Cut, Cap & Balance plan; or
  • A short-term fix with significant cuts that GUARANTEES that this entire debate to be revisited next year prior to the presidential election.

Anything short of that, I wrote, would be a total loss — for Republicans, and for the nation as a whole.  Now, we see that this “clean” BBA does not include a 20-percent-of-GDP Spending Limit Amendment as proposed by Pence and Hensarling or 18 percent limit as proposed as part of Cut, Cap and Balance.  It is incomplete, and the missing components bring with it long-term problems.

Furthermore, as Ed Morrissey pointed out, the “clean” BBA gives lawmakers inside the Beltway exactly what they desire: a blank check — only this time, that blank check will be drawn upon future job and economic growth stifled due to the tax increases necessary to comport with a limited-scope constitutional budget amendment. For that reason, it must not come to pass.

Standing against the “clean” BBA, however, will be tricky.  To the casual political observer, opposition to any Balanced Budget Amendment could be mistaken for a contradiction of policy typically advanced by conservatives.  The downhill consequences of the wrong BBA, however, show quite the opposite.  This kind of nuanced difference at the outset of policy debate that leads to astronomically different consequences down the road is an example of why, on a larger scale, having anything less than conservative leadership in the White House and in Congress could lead to more problems than we previously have, each caused by purportedly “conservative” policies.  Down the road, should tax increases come about due to the passage now of a “clean” BBA, it will be conservatives and conservatism that will be blamed, when the inherent problems with a “clean” BBA run afoul of the personal responsibility and fiscal restraint that stands as the hallmarks of the true conservative message.

Taking what Ed Morrissey said to heart, I feel the need to expand upon it in one way: we do not need to–and we must not–wait until 2012 to refrain from being a cheerleading squad for the Republican Party.  Opposing the “clean” Balanced Budget Amendment is essential.



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