Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 25, 2011

WE'LL APPARENTLY HAVE TO DEBATE THE BBA ONCE AGAIN.... I'd really hoped we were past this nonsense.

Over three decades, Sen. Orrin Hatch has labored unsuccessfully for a Balanced Budget Amendment. The Senate last passed such a measure in 1982, only to be disappointed by a Democrat-controlled House. The tease hit its apex in 1997, when the Utahn cobbled together 66 votes -- one aye short of the constitutional requirement. "Like Charlie Brown with the football, we kept trying," he laments in his memoir.

With fiscal hawks roosting in both chambers, Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is itching for another round. This week, along with Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas), he will unveil a revamped proposal. The pair's amendment will mandate the federal budget not to exceed total revenues, cap federal spending at 20 percent of gross domestic product, and require a two-thirds vote (in both the House and the Senate) for net tax increases. The legislation will also require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress each fiscal year.

As the federal government nears its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, a "great constitutional debate," Hatch declares, is necessary. "Let's put the screws on the big spenders," he says.

Ah yes, those rascally "big spenders." Who might that include? Perhaps we could nominate Orrin Hatch, who voted for measures adding $5 trillion to the debt in just eight years, and who later said he considered the better part of the last decade a period in which "it was standard practice not to pay for things."

In other words, Orrin Hatch wants a constitutional amendment to tie the hands of people like ... Orrin Hatch.

Perhaps more strikingly, his co-partner in this ridiculous initiative is John Cornyn, who wants to tie a balanced budget amendment to the hostage strategy for the federal debt limit -- either Democrats agree to change the U.S. Constitution, or Cornyn and his pals will try to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States government.

As messengers go, Republicans like Hatch and Cornyn have absolutely no credibility on fiscal responsibility. They're not only responsible for the budget mess, they demanded massive tax breaks last year that made the situation worse.

But putting the hypocrisy aside, there's an important substantive argument here about the balanced budget amendment itself. The proposal is, as Bruce Bartlett recently explained, "a terrible idea." His item on this is well worth reading -- and bookmarking for future reference -- and it hits nearly all of the highlights, including the fact that a BBA would undermine the economy and is probably unenforceable anyway.

But I'd just emphasize the fact that sometimes, running a deficit is both wise and necessary, and writing a prohibition into constitutional stone would tie policymakers' hands at key moments of crisis. Proponents have said the language would made exceptions in which deficits would be allowed -- wars, economic crises, etc. -- but at that point, there's no real point in having the amendment anyway.

For that matter, if Hatch, Cornyn, or any of the laughably insincere deficit hawks want a balanced budget, they can do us all a favor and present a plan on how to make that happen. That would take effort and intellectual honesty, so they take the easy way out -- instead of doing the hard work, they want to trot out a gimmick that will mandate a policy goal they can't figure out how to accomplish on their own.

In other words, those who want a balanced budget amendment should make plain how they'd balance the budget. Otherwise, the scheme is just a silly, cynical political charade.

Steve Benen 10:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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Breaking News! (AP)
A crazed serial spender is loose in Congress. Capitol police are investigating an unsigned note found on the Senate floor. It reads: "Stop me, before I spend again!"

Posted by: DAY on January 25, 2011 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

BBA supporters like Hatch used to make a big deal of the fact that most state constitutions require a balanced budget. That point has lost its value with most states awash in red ink these days.

Posted by: Lifelong Dem on January 25, 2011 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

Any effort to require super majority votes IN BOTH HOUSES OF THE CONGRESS on substantive matters, including of course the very important issue of Federal fiscal policy, is ANTI-MAJORITARIAN. It would allow a minority to frustrate the will of the majority of representatives duly elected by the people. It would rig the federal constitutional system so that no matter what the majority wanted on fiscal matters, the minority would rule, unless a super majority vote could be mustered.

Haven't we had enough awful experience with the so called "filibuster rule" and its abuse in the Senate to know how destructive is this concept in a representative democracy?

No! a thousand times NO Balanced Budget Amendment!

Posted by: robert on January 25, 2011 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

How many cuts to military spending has Hatch proposed?

'Nuff said.

Posted by: Gregory on January 25, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Welcome to California .

Posted by: FRP on January 25, 2011 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Orrin, thankfully that bad egg didn't 'hatch' the last time you tried it.

This makes the same kind of sense as if, after Chicago's already burned down, Mrs. O'Leary wants to make sure that it'll never happen again by teaching all cows to be firefighters.

Why can't the public see that these people are clowns, not serious people? Oh yeah, the MSM. Never mind...

Posted by: c u n d gulag on January 25, 2011 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

And it has worked so well for California! Actually, I would be for a BBA if, and only if, it included a 2/3 requirement for tax cuts.

Posted by: Tigershark on January 25, 2011 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

"Otherwise, the scheme is just a silly, cynical political charade."

You may want to put that phrase in a macro.

Posted by: Z. Mulls on January 25, 2011 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

"I would be for a BBA if, and only if, it included a 2/3 requirement for tax cuts."

NO as tempting as it is to 'rig' the game for short term gains, and as easy is it is to say the game is rigged anywayby big money, big media, etc., please resist the impulse.

Posted by: robert on January 25, 2011 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK


Posted by: bleh on January 25, 2011 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

what's amusing here is that typically, when republicans say they're concerned about the deficit, that's really a euphemism for "we don't like government spending on anything that isn't part of the military-industrial complex," which is why they never think twice about tax-cutting without offsetting spending cuts.

but when you actually put a balanced budget on the table, you expose the whole linguistic charade.

personally, i think the dems should agree to vote in favor of this as soon as hatch produces a plan that would show what a balanced budget would look like this year.

Posted by: howard on January 25, 2011 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

From the Sept 28, 2010 Salt Lake Tribune

"The amount of federal stimulus cash pumped into Utah by the controversial American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has now surpassed the $3 billion mark in spending and as much as another $1.5 billion in tax cuts.

Spending alone — on education, business and student loans, road and infrastructure construction, energy projects, and expansion of existing social welfare programs like jobless assistance and food stamps — has pushed Utah’s benefit from the stimulus to $1,110 per resident, according to data newly compiled by the nonprofit investigative journalism website ProPublica.org.

That puts Utah slightly below the national per capita average of $1,170.

But the Utah stimulus figure is much higher than $3 billion. Almost $1.5 billion more in tax cuts — not part of spending data — has been reaching Utah pocketbooks since 2009, through the stimulus bill’s changes in payroll withholding brackets and relief from the alternative minimum tax for middle-class taxpayers.

So, with a financial boost that large — one likely to be more even than the $3.7 billion the bill originally targeted for Utah — what do taxpayers have to show for the money?

A lot, it turns out.

``Whenever you get that amount of money infused into the state, it has to have a certain amount of benefit,’’ said John Nixon, budget director for Gov. Gary Herbert, who has helped shape two state budgets since stimulus cash starting flowing in February 2009.

Stimulus-funded transportation projects, in particular, have had a significant impact on the state, said one leading Republican — but not enough to assuage GOP criticism that the $780 billion-plus stimulus package was overspending that contributed to the national debt."

When Orrin is ready to talk about cuts to Hill Air Force Base, reductions in the amount we spend on 4 National Parks that bring tourists to Utah, cut the operating budgets BLM offices that process permits to drill on Federal lands, cut the funding for wildlife refuges; cut funding for "oil" shale; cut the 2:1 and 3:1 matches from various federal programs, that the state uses, etc.

Oh, and maybe start negotiating for return of $ to the federal gov't for funding of TRAX, and rail commuter trains to Ogden; rebuild of I 15 in Utah County, and [And I am sure the same can be said for Coryn] then maybe I will start listening to my senator.

Until then, STFU, Orrin.

Posted by: bigutah on January 25, 2011 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Before this becomes the cause du jour with the tea bagging crowd, it would be wise for the opponents of the BBA to explain in simple terms why this is a crappy idea. Simply use the American Family as an example: now a family can't have any credit cards. Fine, good idea in theory. But what happens if the family car breaks down, or someone needs new glasses, or a pet gets sick, or any number of examples where people use credit cards for the needs they don't have the cash for. Oops, now the American Family doesn't get to eat anything but ramen for the month, or has to get on by using candles because they didn't pay their electric bill. You get the idea.

Posted by: Island Janet on January 25, 2011 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

Aren't we currently at war? I say get some concession from Hatch, Corryn et al., pass the stupid amendment, then point out that the Republican line is that we're at war on terror. Even if we pull everyone out of Afghanistan and Iraq, we're still at war with TeRrOr, so the BBA doesn't apply.

Posted by: Mike D on January 25, 2011 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Expecting Hatch to do something elegant , and with meaning , seems a stretch for a man who acted as if Ted Kennedy was a stranger , immediately after his bosom friends passing . As such , as if Kennedy was a man with whom he had no truck , betraying a long relationship for a win in some nuance of the day .
So yes ! Dweam on dreamer !
Orrin Hatch will produce a plan that would show what a balanced budget looks like this year . If Dicky Chenie taught us the meaning of "Without a doubt" , doubtlessly .

Posted by: FRP on January 25, 2011 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

These losers don't have an original thought in their fucked up heads, do they? God damn it is exasperating that we have to keep having the same arguments over and over again. They still want to argue about states rights, for fucks sake, when we shitcanned the Articles of Confederation over 200 years ago!

Posted by: Sam Simple on January 25, 2011 at 11:42 AM | PERMALINK

Sam Simple , think of it as training a cat .

Posted by: FRP on January 25, 2011 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

Hmmm. If only sane Democrats could come up with a clever but derisive label with which to saddle this idea. Like "job-killing budget amendment". Or "economy-stalling amendment" Or "depression-causing budget amendment".

Oops. I forgot. Liberal ideas are "too complex" to explain to the public.

Posted by: square1 on January 25, 2011 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

Although this is the worst time to go for austerity and balanced budgets because of the economic downturn (see Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz (Truth Out) we should have some mechanism for controlling deficits. We should be proud of Clinton's/Congress' legacy in balancing the budget (more or less, dep. on perhaps debatable definitions?) by the late 90s, and want to build on that. To just have spending routinely outstrip revenues is not good overall, can we agree on that?

(I added ℏ into my name because of interests thereof and to help search, but naturally because the remember data function is broken here as is the name link adder (hello mods/webmaster), I may or may not remember to put it or etc. in any other time. BTW for those who haven't found out, you can add all kinds of characters into most HTML and Word or similar docs using Alt+number, in the case of ℏ it is 8463. However standards vary, so it may work different for different SW/platforms etc. I think HTML follows standard ASCII as far as the latter goes. You can do amazing things if you have full capacity, including very obscure language characters and other symbols.)

Posted by: neil ℏ b on January 25, 2011 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

Otherwise, the scheme is just a silly, cynical political charade.

What's stopping the Congress from passing a balanced budget? The Constitution already gives them the power of the purse. They have the means and authority already.

A BBA is akin to me declaring to my boss that I'm not going to do my job unless I get a memo every week specifically directing me to do it.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on January 25, 2011 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

@square1 - How about 'GOP Depression Economics'?

"In the 30's, many in Washington chose GOP Depression Economics of budget balancing over the employment and empowerment of the American people. Today we hear echoes from those same voices..."

"It is time that we reject GOP Depression Economics once and for all.."

"The GOP Depression Economics of fiscal balance and social misery are, sadly, all the opposition has proposed..."

Posted by: danimal on January 25, 2011 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

Just so long as there's an exemption for all states - - ALL states, mind you - - whose names begin with the letter "U."

Posted by: Frank Lynch on January 25, 2011 at 12:26 PM | PERMALINK

On, I forgot to mention the doubly irony of orrin's charade. One of the architects of the New Deal, the reconfiguration of the US banking system during the depression, who until the destruction of sane banking laws, helped create the financial system from 1930-1990, was .... Marriner Eccles, who was from .... Utah; he was also a republican who saw a need to help the country. Ah, those were the days ....

Posted by: bigutah on January 25, 2011 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

What a joke. The same people who say the annual Defense appropriation is sacrosanct and the same people who created our massive annual debt service obligation now want a balanced budget. This is analgous to burning down a house and then insisting a displaced family move back into it.

Posted by: max on January 25, 2011 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Here's how Democrats argue against the BBA: Are YOU in favor of a takeover by the federal judiciary -- unelected judges -- of the entire federal budget process? Do you want federal judges ordering taxes raised? Ordering programs cut?

Because that's what "constituionalizing the budget process" will get you.

That's if the BBA actually WORKS, mind you. If the federal judiciary DECLINES the offer by Congress that it take over all the hard work the Congress doesn't want to do, the BBA then would just become an empty gesture, getting us no closer to a balanced budget each year than the present system.

Posted by: Michael Scott on January 25, 2011 at 3:09 PM | PERMALINK

Absolutely! Let's have a constitutional amendment to prohibit deficits. That worked splendidly in prohibiting alcohol, didn't it? Or am I drunk?

Posted by: tamiasmin on January 25, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK



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