Unbalanced Amendment


The original Constitution of the United States was a flawed document (see article I section 2 and article IV section 2) but in general it has been improved by the amendment process. While the process of amendment may seem unreasonably slow and cumbersome (see the Equal Rights Amendment) it has at least protected us from the Crittenden Compromise and the Anti-Miscegenation Amendment. Judicial review can have a similar effect, and gives faster satisfaction, but comparative haste, and the limited life experience of the justices of the Supreme Court may lead to decisions that are ill considered and incredibly harmful. In spite of the Court’s recent decisions on the Affordable Care Act and Same Sex Marriage, the Roberts Court has rolled back many of the advances of the Warren Court. Amendments are more durable.

Historically, amendments to the Constitution have generally been improvements. The one major embarrassment was the 18th amendment – Prohibition. Now, however, we’ve got a bigger threat than that one—the Balanced Budget Amendment. This poisoned apple is introduced year after year, and has been thankfully rejected, but as the Republicans focus on the Federal Deficit as their demonstration of fiscal responsibility, there’s a growing risk that with a Republican President and Republican Congress, the Balanced Budget Abomination might make it through Congress. Since the idea of a balanced budget sounds quite reasonable, it’s too easy to imagine a politician voting for the amendment rather than having to explain why he didn’t.

While the text of the proposed amendment has varied from year to year, the 2015 version, begins this way:

“Section 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.”

This sounds simple and has an obvious appeal. Families have to live on their income, so why can’t the government do the same? Of course the people signing onto this amendment are the same ones who keep adding to the deficit, to a large extent on straight party lines. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported “… By themselves, in fact, the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will account for almost half of the $20 trillion in debt that, under current policies, the nation will owe by 2019. The stimulus law and financial rescues will account for less than 10% of the debt at that time.” President Clinton left office with the government running a surplus, which President Bush promptly began to give away as needless tax cuts and even more needless wars. President Obama inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression and a Congress that wouldn’t raise taxes, even on the most obscenely wealthy. Under Obama, the economy grew and the deficit dropped, so perhaps the Republican endorsement of the Balanced Budget amendment is intended to correct their own behavior.

There are two serious problems with the Balanced Budget Amendment. First, as the economy declines, so do tax receipts – just when demands on the social safety net increase. As more people need unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid, that’s when the government will be required, by the Constitution, to cut back on spending. The principle of countercyclic budgeting — save in good times, spend in bad — dates to the story of Joseph in Egypt in the Book of Genesis but it doesn’t seem to have reached the current crop of politicians.

Worse there’s a Trojan Horse, as reported by the Congressional Budget Office, which, on Oct. 2, 2012 headlined “ As the Population Ages, Social Security’s Spending Is Projected to Outpace Its Tax Revenues.” This was never a secret. It’s why the Social Security Trust Funds were created during the Carter administration. The money is safely invested in US Government bonds, and is intended to cover the shortfall when expenditures fall below income. But the Balanced Budget Amendment has no provision of drawing on trust funds “Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year,” The CBO report projects “Over the next 10 years, outlays will exceed dedicated tax revenues by about 10 percent, on average. That gap will grow larger in the 2020s, and by 2030, Social Security outlays will be about 6% of gross domestic product and will exceed dedicated tax revenues by about 20%. “

It means the money in the trust funds will be blocked – no checks can go out. Elderly people will be writing to their congressional representatives, whose hands are tied by the Constitution. Of course if we privatized Social Security the system could be saved. Anybody got a better idea?

According to the web site OnTheIssues.org, the following Republican candidates have endorsed the Balanced Budget Amendement: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Robert Ehrlich, Lindsay Graham, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. At least Donald Trump is still a safe choice.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email sdu01@outlook.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2015


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