Americans expect their representatives in Congress to look after the interests of all Americans, not just the privileged few. But after handing out a massive tax break to the very wealthiest — who coincidentally bankroll their campaigns — Republicans in Congress are about to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that would cause massive cuts to programs that Americans rely upon.
Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans plan to force a vote a federal balanced budget amendment this week, but Americans should not be fooled by this move. This amendment is not about budgeting or balance. It’s about pushing an extreme agenda that would lead to a constitutional and economic catastrophe.
On the surface, a federal balanced budget amendment (BBA) sounds like a reasonable idea. In reality though, it is horrible public policy that will hurt American families, sabotage our nation’s economy, and weaken confidence in our Constitution.
A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget is very different from how the average American family balances its own budget. In fact, most American families do not actually balance their budgets. Instead, they balance their checkbooks. We take out loans when we buy a house, send our kids to college, buy a car, or when there is a family emergency. With a BBA, the federal government could not borrow and raise money like this when there is a crisis. This is especially dangerous when our nation needs to spend extra money to respond to a national security crisis, a natural disaster, or a sudden change in the economy.
It became increasingly clear after Republicans in Congress passed their tax bill last year, adding over $1 trillion to the annual federal deficit, that they did not care about the cumulative federal debt. Suddenly, after burying the nation in more debt by cutting taxes, with most of the benefits going to the wealthy and large corporations, they propose a constitutional amendment that would force cuts to important programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and military retirement benefits.
In addition to being bad economic policy, a federal BBA is also a misuse of the U.S. Constitution and could lead to Americans not trusting our constitutional processes.
The Constitution is not supposed to set detailed fiscal policy, and we shouldn’t start trying to use it that way now. That’s because a BBA would force courts to make spending decisions that are supposed to be left to our elected representatives. Instead of creating a responsible budget that works for everyday Americans, passing a BBA would be another example of Congress passing the buck and failing to do its job.
A BBA could also lead to more secrecy in how Congress is spending our tax dollars. There is no doubt that Congress would feel pressured to hide certain spending in off-budget agencies or increase the number of off-budget items. This is how many states work around their own state-versions of balanced budget amendments. Most states that have their own balanced budget amendments are also able to establish rainy day funds and borrow money to fund education, transportation and infrastructure projects. The BBA that Congress is voting on this week would not allow the federal government to work this way.
Former Common Cause chairman and U.S. Solicitor General Archibald Cox in 1994 called a vote for a BBA “an act of supreme constitutional irresponsibility.” Cox was concerned that with a BBA, drawn out legal challenges and court involvement in the federal budgeting process would “undermine confidence in the Constitution by holding out an appearance of guarantees that would surely prove illusory.”
He was right. At a time when our constitutional values and rights are already being questioned and challenged by the Trump administration, the last thing Americans need is another effort to undermine the integrity of our Constitution. And after his massive tax giveaway for the very richest in the nation, the fact that Ryan will attempt to justify it under the guise of fiscal responsibility is shameful and misleading.