Political Animal


November 10, 2011 1:45 PM Congress set to move on ridiculous BBA idea

By Steve Benen

The New York Times reports today that a Balanced Budget Amendment is poised to get its first vote in both chambers since 1995, with a House vote next week, and a Senate vote expected soon after Thanksgiving.

Let’s pause, then, to note that this is still one of the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas.

In fact, Macroeconomic Advisers, which prepares respected, non-partisan economic analyses for the public and private sectors, reported yesterday that a BBA would do dramatic harm to the economy.

Macroeconomic Advisers writes that if a constitutional balanced budget requirement had been ratified in 2008 and took effect in fiscal year 2012, “The effect on the economy would be catastrophic.” If the 2012 budget were balanced through spending cuts, those cuts would have to total about $1.5 trillion in 2012 alone, which the report estimates would throw about 15 million more people out of work, double the unemployment rate from 9 percent to approximately 18 percent, and cause the economy to shrink by about 17 percent instead of growing by an expected 2 percent. [emphasis added]

Macroeconomic Advisers also found that the BBA would generate enormous economic uncertainty — a problem Republicans sometimes pretend to care about, would make all future economic downturns “deeper and longer,” and would “retard economic growth” even during normal conditions.

This comes soon after an analysis from Standard & Poor’s — which Republicans claim to want to impress — which also said the amendment is a very bad idea.

It won’t, but analyses like these should be a wake-up call to lawmakers who are on the fence about this constitutional monstrosity.

If nothing else, sensible lawmakers should realize that the country is facing real challenges, and wasting time on dangerous gimmicks is absurd. And even if we put aside the fact that there are problems that require immediate attention, and even if we ignore the proposal’s legislative prospects, the Republicans’ Balanced Budget Amendment is has no redeeming qualities.

In addition to all of the usual reasons a BBA is a tragic mistake, it’s worth reemphasizing a couple of related points.

First, the whole idea of the BBA is a cheap cop-out. Policymakers who want to balance the budget can put together a plan to balance the budget. It’s hard work, of course, and would require sacrifice and compromise, but those who take this goal seriously can put in the effort and craft a plan.

But they really don’t want to. Instead of drafting a plan to balance the budget, BBA proponents want a constitutional gimmick that will mandate a policy goal they can’t figure out how to accomplish on their own. That’s not responsible policymaking; that’s the opposite.

And in case this isn’t already obvious, even the point of this endeavor is misguided. Sometimes, running deficits is the smart, responsible thing to do, and to assume that the budget should always be balanced is fundamentally misguided.

What sensible policymakers should be doing is dismissing this “pathetic joke” of a proposal as quickly as possible. It’s policy madness.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • massappeal on November 10, 2011 2:00 PM:

    It may be time for congressional Democrats to vote "present" again....

  • artsmith on November 10, 2011 2:01 PM:

    I am sick unto death about the BBA.

    Here's a challenge for (what passes for) journalists. For every congress-critter who supports the BBA, ask them why Congress, or the House anyway, pass a balanced budget RIGHT NOW. It's in their power, and nothing can stop them from doing it. If they can't put together a balanced budget, ask why not.

    Push the meme.

  • c u n d gulag on November 10, 2011 2:01 PM:

    Maybe after OWS and Tuesday's election results, the Conservatives sniff a change in the air, and that now is the time to pass as much stupid and bad shit as possible.

    Voter suppression efforts have been ongoing because they know the demographics will work against them in the near future, so they have to tilt the playing field.

    BBA is their way to stop government in its tracks, kill paid-into entitlement programs, and give corporate America free-reign to do what they want.

  • zeitgeist on November 10, 2011 2:02 PM:

    explain to me why the DNC isn't already up with TV ads asking "Why do Republicans want to double the unemployment rate?" and putting the Macroeconomic Advisors study up, zoomed to fill the entire screen?

  • T2 on November 10, 2011 2:04 PM:

    hopefully the Senate Dems (minus Nelson and LIEberman) will filibuster this mess. And naturally Obama could issue veto threat.

  • jjjm on November 10, 2011 2:10 PM:

    I assume the Senate will not approve, showing us once again how the GOP has wasted more of our money and our time than any other entity in the history of Congress. Crooks & Liars calls them 'seatwarmers,'

    But I tend to agree with c u n d gulag: the GOP sees itself slowly edging towards being on the ropes, and they want to do as much lasting damage as they can to everyone but the rich, and to shovel as much of our treasury into the pockets of the wealthy as they possibly can before the next electoral showdowns.

    By the way, did anyone notice how the NYT soft-pedalled the Democratic/union victories in Ohio, claiming that they didn't augur anything at all for the 2012 elections? The article was filled with phrases meant to reassure the wealthy GOPers.

  • Danp on November 10, 2011 2:10 PM:

    Dems's don't need to filibuster this mess. It needs 2/3 majority to pass in both houses, and then 3/4 of state legislatures. It's nothing more than another obstructionary gimmick. It ought to do wonders for Congress' approval ratings.

  • Buffalo Harold on November 10, 2011 2:16 PM:

    I am in awe of the Republicans' courage. It takes real guts to publicly flaunt the thorough vacuity and asininity of their collective intellectual capacity.

  • Peter C on November 10, 2011 2:17 PM:

    Every BBA supporter should be asked what they think the Great Depression would have been like if FDR had one tying his hands.

    These idiots want to pretend that the Great Depression didn't happen.

    If we'd had a balanced budget amendment in place in 2008, Bush would have driven the economy into full collapse instead of *just* the Great Recession we're currently suffering though.

    Criminal stupidity ain't in it!

  • Ron Byers on November 10, 2011 2:21 PM:

    Unlike the rest of the posters here, I can understand why voters are attracted to the balanced budget amendment. People who support it aren't necessarily bad people or motivated by a desire to hurt America. At a very shallow level it makes a kind of sense.

    I also understand why it is such a bad idea. Maybe we should be spending our time explaining just why the balanced budget amendment is such a bad idea. If we don't we don't have anybody to blame but ourselves.

  • SteveT on November 10, 2011 2:26 PM:

    What sensible policymakers should be doing is dismissing this "pathetic joke" of a proposal as quickly as possible. It's policy madness.

    Couldn't (and shouldn't) that be said about EVERY SINGLE proposal from today's Republican Party?

  • max on November 10, 2011 2:45 PM:

    How many states will ratify this amendment when voters know their state taxes will be raised considerably as a direct result of losing federal revenue? The answer: None. This is a cheap gimmick. If anyone in the GOP is serious about reducing the national debt then repeal the Bush tax cuts, all paid for with borrowed money - all of them - because it has cost us $5 trillion since 2000. Five trillion. Stop living in a fantasy world on a credit card with no credit limit. Earth to the GOP: either put up or STFU.

  • Stephen Stralka on November 10, 2011 2:57 PM:

    You know, if the Continental Congress had been operating under a balanced budget rule, George Washington wouldn't have had an army.

  • MCD on November 10, 2011 3:09 PM:

    How many judges up for confirmation will the Republicans agree to vote on in exchange for this vote on the BBA? I don't see any reason to schedule this vote before a sufficient number of actually useful votes are taken.

  • martin on November 10, 2011 3:11 PM:

    These idiots want to pretend that the Great Depression didn't happen.

    No, these idiots pretend or believe Roosevelt made it worse.

  • Josef K on November 10, 2011 3:22 PM:

    Both Ron Byers (at 2:21pm) and max (at 2:45pm) raise good points, and rather important ones. To whit:

    1. Even if both chambers pass the damned thing, it still has to go to the 50 States for ratification.

    2. No all governors are as great an idiot as Scott Walker or Rick Snyder, and they're sure to realize what a disaster this amendment would be for them.

    3. The fact there's even a sliver of the electorate who think this is a good idea shows a frightening failure on the part of both our education system and the Democrats. I'll wager the same bunch think both chambers passing this atrocity automatically makes it part of the Constitution (which I'll likewise wager they've never read).

    I'm saddened and supremely tired of stupidity like this. I'm equally saddened this is often how our country has been, and will continue to be.

  • Gregory on November 10, 2011 4:00 PM:

    In fact, Macroeconomic Advisers, which prepares respected, non-partisan economic analyses for the public and private sectors, reported yesterday that a BBA would do dramatic harm to the economy.

    Well then, I'm sure that'll make the Republicans reconsider their proposal!

  • Bob on November 10, 2011 4:06 PM:

    I agree with artsmith, above. There is absolutely nothing preventing any congress-person from proposing a balanced budget RIGHT NOW. Wouldn't that be infinitely more productive than wasting time on this stupid amendment. At least voters would (should) get a chance to see exactly how a budget balanced with cuts alone would destroy everything from the federal government they value. Presumably no more mobility scooters.

  • newtons.third on November 10, 2011 4:45 PM:

    As I read this, I was reminded of a review of a performance car that has driver adjustable suspension, differentials, etc... and the reviewer noted that when he sees that level of driver adjustability, it usually means that the engineers did not want to do the hard work of setting the car up properly. The engineer can say, "the ride is not my fault, you did not set it up right".

  • Ken on November 10, 2011 5:34 PM:

    May I suggest the name "The President William Clinton Responsible Government Amendment"? On the one hand if it passes, it will acknowledge the last President to achieve a balanced (surplus, even) budget; and on the other, it won't pass since with that name it is guaranteed not to pull a single Republican vote. Two birds with one stone.

  • Zach W. on November 10, 2011 6:52 PM:

    @ T2:

    While it would be nice if Obama could veto BBA, the president doesn't get a say on constitutional amendments. If ratified by 2/3 majority in both chambers of congress, then BBA would go to the statehouses. I think 38 would have to approve for the amendment to pass.

  • biggerbox on November 11, 2011 10:21 AM:

    If the Democrats had good messaging people, every Republican who supported a BBA would be used as evidence that the GOP supports raising taxes. Because there is simply no way to continue doing the things people expect the government to do, and balance the budget, without raising taxes. Hoist them on their own petard!

    The BBA is really only interesting to the GOP because it gives them a lever to help cut spending. It's really a Cut Government Down To Nothing Amendment. But there are two ways to balance the budget, and if you start from the assumption that government is the right size, then raising taxes is what a BBA calls for.

  • zandru on November 11, 2011 12:00 PM:

    What IS a "Balanced Budget", Anyway?

    I think there's a tacit assumption that it means you can't spend more than you take in via taxes. BUT!

    Suppose you take out a loan for something big and useful, something nobody could object to, like a house. Suddenly, you've "spent" $300,000 or so! But you're only paying out a few thousand a month, which fits well within your household income, and if you count all your expenditures against your income, it "balances" - and perhaps you can even save some.

    Yet you're in debt by a significant fraction of a million bucks. So, does that mean your budget is NOT "balanced"?

    Americans desperately need to be educated about basic finance, not to mention given a clue about the complexities of economies in general. Instead, the pols on both sides and the rightwing complicent media just poke us in our nerve centers, working hard and effectively to trigger our basest emotions.