Later today, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., plans to introduce a balanced budget amendment that he says he expects will unite the Republican caucus. While Toomey is no doubt one of the more sincere and serious lawmakers when it comes to wanting to get our nation's debt under control, I've always been a skeptic of the effort to pass such an amendment.
There are a number of issues with the idea. One is that in the event of a war, governments often have to run up massive deficits (the largest deficits in the nation's history as a proportion of GDP came during World War II). Another is that you could theoretically have a balanced budget and massive spending were you to raise taxes high enough.
Toomey's proposal addresses both of these concerns. From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
The resulting proposal kicks in five years after its ratification, when it would require that the nation's budget spend no more than its revenue, and cap spending at 18 percent of the gross domestic product. The requirement can be waived for a single year with the vote of a majority of both houses of Congress during a declared war, with a three-fifths vote during a military conflict — only allowing increased spending related to the conflict — and a two-thirds vote at any other time.
Of course, if you could get two-thirds support in both chambers of Congress and the support of 38 states for balancing the budget through spending cuts rather than tax increases, we wouldn't even need to be having a debate over balancing the budget — lawmakers would just do it. Also, all an amendment does is say that a budget must be balanced, but not how to do it, and the five year time-frame is a incredibly ambitious. Even Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan's “Roadmap” proposal is considered beyond what's politically feasible, and he takes decades to balance the budget. So, it's easy for a Republican Senator to vote for a balanced budget amendment that he or she knows won't become law, but it's a lot harder to come out in support of the massive cuts to entitlement programs that would be necessary to balance the budget within five years. Thus, support for a balanced budget amendment can also be a cop out for lawmakers who, unlike Toomey, aren't really serious about getting our debt under control. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to press candidates and lawmakers into giving me specific cuts and entitlement reforms they'd support to reduce the debt, only to have them dodge me and then tout their support for a balanced budget amendment.
The idea of a balanced budget amendment is fine as a symbolic gesture, but it shouldn't be seen as much more than that.