The Problem a Balanced Budget Amendment Can’t Fix

The Problem a Balanced Budget Amendment Can’t Fix

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

As reports filtered out Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan plans to bring a balanced budget amendment to the House floor for a vote, in fulfillment of a pledge to Rep. Mark Walker, chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, much of the reaction was negative, and focused on the seeming hypocrisy of party leaders calling for restraint soon after passing a $1.5 trillion tax cut and a $1.3 trillion spending package (see here and here for examples).

But the more serious criticism, which came from across the political spectrum, was that the call for a balanced budget amendment obscures the deeper problem in our nation’s capital: the inability to agree upon what the country needs and how to pay for it. After all, if Republicans are so serious about balancing the budget, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so right now, with or without an amendment.

Sen. Bob Corker, often described as a deficit hawk, put it this way: “Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. If we were serious about balancing the budget, we would do it. But instead of doing the real work, some will push this symbolic measure so they can feel good when they go home to face voters.”

Zach Moller of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget pointed out that a balanced budget amendment “doesn’t take away the hard choices” over what programs to cut and what taxes to raise. And those choices would be painful. By way of illustration, Moller lays out three separate scenarios, none of which seem even remotely realistic, for eliminating the $1 trillion deficit expected in 2019:

  • Eliminate all Social Security spending while keeping the program’s tax revenues.
  • Eliminate all federal Medicaid, Obamacare and CHIP spending, plus income security programs (including unemployment) and civilian and military retirement spending.
  • Eliminate spending for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, Veterans Affairs, both discretionary and mandatory.

No one expects these scenarios to come to pass, but that’s the point. Even if it could pass, a balanced budget amendment wouldn’t make those kinds of decisions any easier. As Moller concludes, “A balanced budget amendment does not replace any choices on what to cut or what taxes to increase. … You want to balance the budget? do your job.”