On the heels of an unpaid-for $1.3 trillion spending binge, House Republicans have announced they plan to—I’m not making this up—push for a balanced budget amendment (BBA) when they return from recess. This only proves there is no low to which the GOP will not stoop as it continues to insult the intelligence of its voter base.
The real strategy to pass a BBA, as happened with Obamacare, will most likely be to hold empty, meaningless roll call votes on measures that have no hope of passing and which the GOP has no plan to carry out. Then a Republican lawmaker can tell voters in the fall: “Look, we tried to do something about federal spending, but the Democrats voted against the balanced budget amendment.”
Here’s why the GOP’s move to prioritize BBAs should be perceived as the duplicitous pandering and vacuous virtue signaling that it is: first, there’s the timing. This gesture comes just after lawmakers from both parties passed a broad, two-year budget framework that blows up the budget caps imposed in 2011, and will lead to trillions in spending each and every year henceforth, with interest payments on the massive federal debt set to outpace the cost of the military and the cost of Medicaid in just eight years. Voting for gargantuan spending of this size and then claiming to support a balanced budget amendment is like gorging on a sumptuous feast while insisting that you want a svelte physique.
The other reason voters should not take the Republican call for a BBA seriously is that even in the best of times it is almost impossible to pass an amendment to the Constitution. A balanced-budget amendment would require the support of two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate, in addition to the backing of three quarters of the states. That’s an almost impossible lift, which is why only 27 amendments to the Constitution have ever been ratified.
Nevertheless, calls for BBAs have been popular since the 1980s, and gained particular steam from conservatives in 2010 with the Tea Party movement. The idea sounds deceptively simple: a balanced budget amendment would require that the government spend no more than it takes in during any given year.
But even if by some miracle one was ratified, a balanced budget amendment is a blunt instrument that wouldn’t necessarily be effective. That’s because during recessions and economic downturns, the government has to spend more on things like nutritional assistance and unemployment benefits. With a BBA in place, Congress would be unable to do so, resulting in something like sequestration on steroids.
The federal government has been running deficits for years, whereas with a BBA in place it could only spend the revenue it takes in. That’s what proponents like about the BBA—however, such a measure would also nix the GOP’s new tax cut, which adds over $400 billion to the deficit this year and next. It would also almost certainly impose not just draconian cuts but calls for higher taxes to raise revenue to sustainable rates.
The federal department with the most to lose from a BBA would like be the Pentagon, and Republicans have been loath to make any cuts to the military budget. Adjustments to spending at the Department of the Interior or the Department of Education would be drops in the bucket compared to the whopping 50 percent of discretionary spending that the DOD currently chews up.
And that’s just discretionary spending. Three quarters of the federal budget is devoted to autopilot spending on programs like Social Security and Medicare, over which Congress has little control and therefore wouldn’t necessarily be affected by a BBA. Any supposed fix that ignores 70 percent of the federal budget is deeply unserious. And there’s no realistic program in the offing to make these programs fiscally solvent. That’s just another sign that the focus on a BBA is smoke and mirrors.
Nonetheless, the dire reality of this bipartisan fiscal insanity cannot be understated.
The very same week that Republicans and Democrats approved the $1.3 trillion spending swamp monster, the United States hit another dubious record: it announced plans to sell about $294 billion of debt, the highest per week total since the 2008 financial crisis, according to the Treasury Department.
Every taxpayer is now responsible for approximately $161,000 of the debt, which just surpassed $21 trillion. And that number is only going up: the federal government spends nearly $7 million per minute. The result is that the debt is projected to reach $24.9 trillion by 2027. The Social Security trust fund is insolvent. Without changes, this means that Social Security won’t be available to Millennials when they retire, a fact that 94 percent of that generation say they’re aware of.
Pragmatic proposals that make real reforms to autopilot spending and bring the federal budget to balance within a realistic timeline could not be more needed. Our ability to pay our bills has a direct impact on our national security, our economic standing in the world, and the global economy both now and in the future. It is an unconscionable crime and injustice to our children and grandchildren to load them up with so much debt.
It’s hard to think of an issue that could have direr consequences—which is why it’s so disheartening to see the GOP regurgitating the same tired and stale kabuki time and time again. It’s time to forget the BBA and get serious.
Barbara Boland is the former weekend editor of the Washington Examiner. Her work has been featured on Fox News, the Drudge Report, HotAir.com, RealClearDefense, RealClearPolitics, and elsewhere. She’s the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General Patton in World War II, and is a summa cum laude graduate of Immaculata University. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.