The Balanced Budget Amendment Scam

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April 4 2011 9:04 AM

The Balanced Budget Amendment Scam

Bruce Bartlett made quick work of the new Balanced Budget Amendment at the end of last week; I seem to have missed the inaugural Two Minutes Hate he inspired, but the post is still worth reading. The problem is that the new amendment would cap spendin g at 18 percent of GDP, waiving that only if a 2/3 vote of the Congress makes it so.

The gross domestic product is not a concept defined in law and is revised constantly; from time to time, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revises the GDP data all the way back to 1929. And of course, the 18 percent figure is totally arbitrary; the proposal effectively assumes that all federal outlays consist of funds that are appropriated annually, rather than consisting primarily of mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt. Even if Congress was willing to cut mandatory spending, it is practically impossible to do so quickly unless it is willing to reduce the monthly checks going to current retirees and other actions difficult to contemplate.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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The real issue with this is that it's a fat, flopping red herring. Compare the text of the new amendment to the text of the Balanced Budget Amendment which nearly passed the Senate in 1996 . The 18 percent of GDP stuff wasn't in there. The result: That amendment could actually attract Democratic votes. What do you get when you don't write an amendment in a way that can win Democrats? You get symbolic language that Republicans can run on. And that's basically it.

Wait, no, sorry: That's not it. The new amendment, like the old one, includes language about war spending.

SECTION 6. The Congress may waive the provisions of sections 1, 2, 3, and 5 of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war against a nation-state is in effect and in which a majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide for a specific excess by a roll call vote.

SECTION 7. The Congress may waive the provisions of sections 1, 2, 3, and 5 of this article in any fiscal year in which the United States is engaged in a military conflict that causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so declared by three-fifths of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote.

Obviously we haven't had a declaration of war recently, but we've been engaged in military action for nine years and six months, and many of the Republicans who've co-sponsored the amendment supported that action. So this is toothless.*

*It should be -- the idea of balancing budgets in wartime is frivolous, and wouldn't have been seriously dicussed in the 90s.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.