It is hard to tell, some times, when satire ends and actual serious legislation begins.
Which brings us to Sen. Orrin Hatch’s latest, a Constitutional amendment to require the federal government to balance the budget.
No, seriously. The Senator introduced the legislation the other day. According to press reports, he says it would:
Annually require Congress to submit a budget in which expenditures do not exceed revenues unless three-fifths of each house of Congress approves a non-balanced budget.
Direct the Treasury Department to use surpluses to pay down the nation’s debt.
Require all tax increases to be approved by two-thirds of the members of Congress.
Allow Congress to waive the balanced budget requirement during years when a declaration of war is in effect.
I don’t really have a problem with government living within its means. Interestingly, every time I say “OK, raise a tax to pay for that,” I’m accused of being a “tax and spend liberal.”
Cut something? Every dollar in the budget has a legislator who will scream if it is trimmed even a penny. Sen. Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop are fighting like badgers to protect NASA spending in Utah, to give one example. And yet, really, do we need to go to the moon that badly?
I would be fascinated to see how Hatch proposes we get to the point of a balanced budget, seeing as how the budget is now $1 trillion or so out of whack. To narrow that gap even by $200 billion a year would take five years of very severe cuts and/or tax hikes, completely eliminate growth in the budget, and hamstring Congress to react to any new problems that come up.
The problem here and Sen. Hatch is part of it is that Congress doesn’t want to balance the budget, not if that balancing requires Congress to actually do something. I invite Sen. Hatch to send me copies of statements he made during the term of President Ronald Reagan, for example, excoriating Reagan for tripling the national debt while cutting taxes. Or when he slammed Vice President Cheney when Cheney said “Deficits don’t matter.”
Truth is, much of the current wailing about the national debt and deficit smacks of political grandstanding. Neither Sen. Hatch, nor any other member of Congress, really has the stomach for the kinds of cuts of spending and tax hikes it would take to achieve balance.
If they did, they would do so and we wouldn’t be in this fix. All a Constitutional Amendment will do is set off a mad scramble to find ways to avoid balancing the budget, or hide the unbalance, whichever, and you may be sure they would succeed.
Which makes his proposal more than satire. It’s cynical. Congress can’t do what this amendment asks, and Hatch knows it. The impact of this drastic change in the fiscal landscape of the nation, even if spread over five years, would be beyond disastrous. Trillions of dollars in economic activity would disappear
We can take those proposals by item.
– Requiring Congress to submit a balanced budget. OK, fine, but how? And what constitutes ”balanced.”?
Utah’s budget is allegedly balanced every year, but it includes a hefty amount of bonding and borrowing. Guess what, that’s what the federal government does now with its “unbalanced” budgets. So if Utah’s budget is balanced by borrowing, so is the Fed’s.
So, problem solved. By the Utah Legislature’s definition, the federal budget is balanced now.
And, note the 3/5ths weasel factor. Will the minority party really risk shutting down the government by refusing to go along with an unbalanced budget? That’s what Congress does now, by the way: Every year it passes a resolution “temporarily” extending the national debt beyond its legal limit, which is some meaningless number I won’t bother to look up because, really, Congress doesn’t care.
And there are always ways around any requirement. President Bush hid the cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by simply declaring the funding for them, $100 billion a year, to be an “emergency” and therefore “off budget.”
A wave of the pen, all that unfunded war simply disappeared. Amazing!
This requirement also gives a very small minority — 2 fifths of Congress — effective power of the purse that the entire House of Representatives and Congress is supposed to have. As will be noted below, this is a very very bad idea, as California’s gridlocked government is a prime example of.
– Directing the Treasury to pay down the debt with surpluses — good luck with that. President Bush was presented with a surplus by President Clinton and immediately pounced on it as a way to gain taxpayer favor by cutting government revenues. The urge to curry voter favor by cutting taxes is the only thing in Congress that is stronger than sex, so I can guarantee you there will be no surpluses.
– Require tax increases to be approved by 2/3 of Congress. This, along with that 3/5 requirement to approve an unbalanced budget, pretty much guarantees gridlock because it guarantees that any minority party has immense power to shut down government in return for favors.
It’s an invitation for backroom dealing and scandle, as well. Think the Congress man who holds the deciding vote won’t make sure his state gets gold plated goodies galore?
Again, look at California.
– Allowing Congress to waive the balanced budget requirement if we are at war? Actually, I like this idea, since it would require Congress to finally declare war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Congress has never declared war since Korea, so this would be a breath of honesty. It would also require them, maybe, to quit ignoring our men and women fighting and dying over there while they sit in DC on that fat behinds playing political games.
What the amendment should REALLY say is that any war Congress declares MUST be paid for, at once, up front, through a new war tax, levied on all taxpayers and corporations, up to 10 percent of gross income. Congress would be solely responsible for levying this tax along with declaring war, answerable to the voters at the next election.
No tax, no war. Now there’s an amendment I’d support.