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The Budget Will Never Balance Until the Wars End

A new congressional amendment seeks to shrink America's widening deficit. There's just one problem: a Pentagon workaround.
Pentagon cropped

Traditional party politics was turned on its head earlier this month when a group of House Democrats proposed a balanced budget constitutional amendment. Congressman Ben McAdams’ measure would prohibit Congress from spending more than it receives in a given year. Additionally, it requires that the president’s budget proposals sent to Congress balance out revenues and expenditures.

Given the failures of previous balanced budget amendments, few people expect this to materialize. Constitutional amendments are tough to pass: both the House and Senate must approve with two-thirds majorities, and 38 out of the 50 states must ratify. But even if McAdams’ legislation were to become law, the country’s near-limitless dedication to military intervention would render it completely ineffective. That is because it contains two key exceptions.

First, the balanced budget rule will not apply if the economy is in a recession. Specifically, if GDP shrinks during two consecutive quarters in the current or previous fiscal year, or if the unemployment rate is higher than 7 percent for two consecutive months or longer, the budget may go into deficit.

The rule will also not apply if a declaration of war is in effect, or if the United States “is engaged in military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security.” (Majorities of the House and Senate must agree that such a threat exists for the exception to apply.)

While both exceptions seem reasonable on a surface level, America’s approach to foreign intervention would make the wartime exception the rule. The United States has been involved in a significant military conflict for roughly 225 years out of its 242-year history, including every year since 2001.

And it’s hard to find a military conflict the U.S. has fought in which it didn’t argue that it was in the interest of national security. President Donald Trump has promised to “stop endless wars” and bring the troops home, but he has increased America’s military presence in the Middle East since taking office. Most recently, he vetoed the War Powers Resolution, a bipartisan attempt to halt support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen due to the grave humanitarian crisis that the Saudis have caused there. Trump wrote that pulling support would endanger “the lives of American citizens.” The U.S. also remains involved in conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia.

So current policy would likely nullify the balanced budget amendment as soon as it became law. And once that happened, it would probably never take effect—U.S. involvement in military conflicts has only increased since the end of the Cold War. So long as they’re justified by Congress as being in the security interests of American citizens—as they so often are—the United States never will be held to this balanced budget amendment, making it largely symbolic and ineffective.

And even if it did take effect, America’s interventionist military policies would make it difficult to enforce. For instance, if a major war were to break out between the United States and a foe like China, North Korea, or Russia, Congress would, of course, want some budget flexibility to respond quickly. Given how often the security of American citizens is invoked to defend intervention, legislating specific parameters for allowing military force would be a tall order. To be effective, then, any rule for fiscal restraint would require the Pentagon to be much more selective about monitoring and allocating its resources.

The tug of war between balanced budgets and military expansion is reflective of a broader ongoing conflict between fiscal responsibility and military spending. Defense appropriations have helped drive soaring deficits throughout U.S. history. The Government Accountability Office recently identified defense as the biggest discretionary spending source contributing to our mounting debt.

The Department of Defense has been hawkish about protecting its budget for years. It failed its first-ever audit, released in December, unable to account for billions of dollars in assets.

The Defense Department also didn’t publicize an estimate of how much money it could have saved by eliminating inefficiencies. A 2015 internal study revealed a “clear path” for the Pentagon to improve its administration, saving $125 billion over five years without reducing personnel. Yet defense officials worried Congress would see this as an opportunity to cut their budget, so the Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the study, and a public summary of the report was removed from a government website.

Defense is hardly the only spending area where streamlining is needed, and more tax revenue is also necessary to arrest the rapidly rising debt. But if America is going to become fiscally responsible, it must end its addiction to war.

John Kristof is a policy analyst based in Indianapolis and a contributor for Young Voices, writing frequently on fiscal and other economic issues. Follow him on Twitter @jmkristof.