Friday, July 15, 2011

The Republican Balanced Budget Amendment - Another Exercise in Vapidity

Apparently the nation cannot get enough budgetary Kabuki theater, so the Republicans want to enshrine their present nonsense into the Constitution. Having reviewed the present Republican proposal for a balanced budget amendment, it would seem that the Republican Party leader gets dumber or less honest... maybe both... with each passing year.

A small dose of honesty would be nice: Congress controls the budget. If Congress wants to balance the budget, all it needs to do is pass a balanced budget. It managed to do that a few times under President Clinton, so it's not like we're dreaming the impossible dream here. The Republican Party shouldn't need to amend the Constitution to give itself sufficient inspiration to do its job.

But truly, this "balanced budget amendment" is made to be broken. It contains intentional loopholes that every Congress can and will drive a truck through. To the extent that it works, it guarantees the type of budgetary gridlock that has paralyzed California's legislature for years. But it won't work, and it will become a matter of routine for Congress to pass resolutions putting it off to the following year or impose disaster on the nation.
Section 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.
So Congress must balance the budget unless it votes not to balance the budget. We're adding a supermajority requirement to the status quo.
``Section 2. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two- thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote.
There is no basis for imposing an arbitrary cap on spending, and it should go without saying that such a cap could paralyze the nation in a time of crisis, such as a recession (like the present one) in which the GDP drops and huge, immediate spending cuts are required, resulting in a downward economic spiral. Or Congress votes to exempt itself from the cap and finds itself locked into the pattern of having to continue to exempt itself, year after year, because the insanity of the cuts required by the cap spirals upward with each passing year. It also encourages Congress to play budgeting games. Rather than including an expenditure in the current year's budget, commit to pay for it next year - make it the problem of the next Congress. And once again, if Republicans want to commit to only voting for budgets for which total outlays do not exceed 18 percent for the fiscal year, they may do exactly that.
``Section 3. Prior to each fiscal year, the President shall transmit to the Congress a proposed budget for the United States Government for that fiscal year in which--
``(1) total outlays do not exceed total receipts; and
``(2) total outlays do not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year.
Why? Congress, the body charged with passing the budget, is so incompetent that it cannot propose a budget within these parameters? No, really, this is about Kabuki theater and the avoidance of responsibility. The Republicans want to be able to blame the President for unpopular cuts. "We only did what was in his budget.

If they cannot reasonably meet this requirement, Presidents, not being stupid, will take one of the many obvious paths around this requirement. One way would be to submit two budgets to Congress, one that complies with this requirement and the other that it the actual spending proposal.Another might be to simply include a line, "If Congress finds that this proposal exceeds the limits set forth in 'Section 3' of the balanced budget amendment, Congress shall determine the percentage by which this budget proposal exceeds the limits and reduce all items by that percentage." Another would simply be to propose a budget based upon unrealistic revenue projections.
Section 4. Any bill that imposes a new tax or increases the statutory rate of any tax or the aggregate amount of revenue may pass only by a two-thirds majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote. For the purpose of determining any increase in revenue under this section, there shall be excluded any increase resulting from the lowering of the statutory rate of any tax.
Because this approach works so well in California?

Seriously, Republicans have proved themselves capable of blocking tax increases, the closing of even absurd tax loopholes, or even the scheduled expiration of tax cuts, while in the minority. I will grant that this type of provision gives the likes of Grover Norquist wet dreams, but why is it actually necessary, let alone desirable, if you're concerned less with your trust fund and more with the welfare of the nation?
Section 5. The limit on the debt of the United States shall not be increased, unless three-fifths of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide for such an increase by a roll call vote.
So we'll have additional rounds of the childish Kabuki theater we're presently "enjoying", but with a supermajority requirement such that a minority of Congress can hold the nation hostage, potentially destroy the nation's credit rating, and potentially trigger a national or global recession or depression. By refusing to authorize the government to borrow money to cover the financial obligations Congress has already authorized? Brilliant. Here's an idea: If Congress doesn't want the money spent, it should refrain from including the expenditure in the budget.

This type of provision makes you wonder if the Republicans want to be taken seriously. There is no constitutional requirement that there even be a debt ceiling. It's entirely a legislative creation. Congress could render this language a nullity simply by repealing the law setting a debt ceiling.
``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.
This gives the President cause to seek a declaration of war against a nation state, or to continue to declare that hostilities remain open in relation to a previous declaration of war. This could pretty much guarantee that the U.S. is always in a declared war against a nation state. We might have declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Heck - had this requirement been in the Constitution back when Reagan was running up the deficit, we might still be in a declared state of war against Grenada. What brilliant foreign policy the Republicans would create by giving Presidents even more incentive to take military action against foreign nations, and drag out those wars and occupations rather than bringing them to the fastest possible resolution.

Note that the one thing a war would not do is allow for a tax increase based upon a majority vote of Congress. It's better, after all, to risk sending ill-equipped, ill-supported troops into battle than to risk that a majority of Congress might raise taxes in order to properly fund the war effort.
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. Such suspension must identify and be limited to the specific excess of outlays for that fiscal year made necessary by the identified military conflict.
So if a President declares something along the lines of a Global War on Terror, we can expect Congress to authorize hundreds of billions of dollars in new debt without concern for if or when it might be repaid. And we raise the serious risk that a minority of the members of a new Congress might decline to continue war spending authorized by a prior Congress, or might demand ridiculous concessions if we want to avoid walking away from a military commitment or leaving troops in the field without adequate support. Small chance, you say? Some wars should be defunded? Even accepting that, this language creates an unnecessary potential national security risk.

Note also the lack of consideration for other contingencies. Massive natural disasters? Huge regional power grid failures? Another financial industry collapse? A recession that could turn into a depression? Domestic emergencies, it seems, are of little import - which I guess is consistent with the Republican Party's actions and the Bush Administration's record - but aren't they supposed to occasionally pretend that they care about responsibly governing this country?
Section 8. No court of the United States or of any State shall order any increase in revenue to enforce this article.
To enforce which provision? This seems gratuitous, but appears to have been thrown in to satisfy certain right-wing think tanks who criticized prior balanced budget amendments for leaving open the possibility of enforcement through the courts.

I suspect that at the heart of this provision is a recognition by the Republicans that, should this pass, at times they'll want to fake it and run up a deficit based on revenue projections they know to be false, or they fear that a recession will turn their projected balanced budget into a deficit-generating budget, and that somebody might try to go to the courts to compel that the budget actually be balanced. Nobody, but nobody, is going to tell a Republican Congress how to do its job, particularly when it is failing in that job.
``Section 9. Total receipts shall include all receipts of the United States Government except those derived from borrowing. Total outlays shall include all outlays of the United States Government except those for repayment of debt principal.
This language, of course, targets the Social Security trust fund. The Republicans are proposing to steal it, fair and square.
``Section 10. The Congress shall have power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation, which may rely on estimates of outlays, receipts, and gross domestic product.
Well, duh?
Section 11. This article shall take effect beginning with the fifth fiscal year beginning after its ratification.
Typical legislative cowardice. "We don't want this to hurt us in the coming election... or the one after that. We don't want this to harm our next presidential candidate. But after five years many of us will be retired and rewarded with cushy sinecures."

I don't believe that the Republicans actually want this nonsense to become part of the Constitution, with the caveat that a significant faction of the Republican caucus is willing to take any number of reckless and stupid risks they know could harm the country if they believe their actions could also harm the Democrats. If they muck up the country and the Constitution in the process, so be it - this is about money and power. The balanced budget proposal is a ploy for the next election, so they can claim to have been seriously trying to force themselves to act responsibly, but that those darn Democrats keep making them run up the deficit.

I'll repeat myself: If the Republicans truly want to balance the budget, all they need to do is pass a balanced budget.

1 comment:

  1. The Canadians managed to take themselves from having a structural deficit to budgetary responsibility while maintaining a European-style social welfare system. Canada is fortunate that its conservatives aren't so stupid that they would have handcuffed it to a balanced budget mandate in the current recession. For all of their faults, Canada's political parties are willing to do their jobs. What we have in this country is a failure of will on the part of the government, and in recent years particularly on the part of Republicans, to act responsibly.