In a Year of Flawed Balanced Budget Ideas, This One Takes the Cake

In a Year of Flawed Balanced Budget Ideas, This One Takes the Cake

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Mike Lee, a new senator from Utah who was nominated and elected with strong Tea Party support, wants to amend the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget every fiscal year. He also wants to limit federal spending to 18 percent of the gross domestic product and require a two-thirds vote in Congress to increase taxes, raise the debt limit or run a deficit in an emergency.

Collectively that package is the worst idea put forth in a year replete with awful proposals.

The Senate last year was tied in knots simply by its filibuster rules which frequently meant it took agreement of 60 senators to conduct even routine business. Lee’s amendment would make that 67 and allow as few as 34 senators to dictate what could become law. And he would put the House in the same boat.

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post Friday, Lee writes, “A balanced-budget amendment is the only way to ensure that Congress acts in the best interest of the country, regardless of who is in power.” And he adds that “history shows that in real emergencies, it is not difficult for Congress to produce a supermajority.”

This has got to be the height of Tea Party hubris that blithely ignores reality and demonstrates how little adherents know or care about the welfare of Americans. This year spending is expected to be about 25 percent of GDP. The deficit will be about $1.5 trillion, or roughly 10 percent of GDP.

What responsibilities does Lee envision the government shedding to jerk spending down to his 18-percent-of-GDP limit? Would he like to scrap Medicare and Social Security? That would do it since together their costs are expected to equal about 8.3 percent of GDP this year. But that is also the order of magnitude of the spending cuts he’s assuming could be made.

Congress is already struggling to deal with Tea Party—excuse me, House Republican--demands for immediate cuts of $61 billion for the remaining six months of the current fiscal year.  Yes, there is a significant longer-term budget problem that has to be addressed, but to do that both spending cuts and tax increases have to be part of the solution. Lee rejects that notion.

“My proposal is strict, enforceable and holds the federal government to a necessarily higher standard,” Lee says. Too bad he hasn’t turned his mind to a higher standard that acknowledges political and economic reality and the needs of the American people. Or maybe the only goal he has in mind is ever lower taxes.

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covered the Federal Reserve and the economy for 25 years at the Washington Post before joining Bloomberg News in 2004. In 2009 he began writing freelance pieces for, among others, Thomson Reuters, and is widely recognized for his ability to interpret the Fed.