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Balanced Budget Amendment – Weasely Californication

Some Republicans in Congress are holding any debt deal hostage to passing a balanced budget amendment. If you go to the Government Printing Office’s FDSys and do a search for “balanced budget amendment” in the 112th Congress, you’ll find a number of bills. But the only one that has seen any sort of Congressional activity since April is:

HJ Res 1

Proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Its last activity is from June 23, 2011 and it had 113 House cosponsors as of July 9, 2011. I think it’s fair to assume that this is the “Balanced Budget Amendment” that Congressional Republicans want passed as part of a budget deal.

I think it’s an exceptionally bad bill because it saddles the country with a solution that has already failed in California and because in all likelihood will avoid balanced budgets by promoting eternal war.

Let’s get the “Californification” element out of the way first. Section 5 of the proposed amendment states:

Section 5. A bill to increase revenue shall not become law unless
two-thirds of the whole number of each House shall provide by law for
such an increase by a rollcall vote.

This law has been on the books for years in California. Prior to 2010, California also had a two thirds of each house voting requirement to pass a budget, which is not part of HJ Res 1. Even with these elements, California is regarded as a fiscal basket case. Imposing California style law on the country isn’t going to help matters.

But the larger problem with this proposed Amendment is the sole escape hatch it provides for increasing government borrowing. Section 6 of HJ Res 1 states:

Section 6. The Congress may waive the provisions of this article
for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war is in effect. The
provisions of this article may be waived for any fiscal year in which
the United States is engaged in military conflict which causes an
imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so
declared by a joint resolution, adopted by a majority of the whole
number of each House, which becomes law.

If this bill had simply said, “The Congress may waive the provisions of this article
for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war is in effect.”, I’d be tempted to support it. We haven’t had any declaration of wars from Congress since 1941 and I think it’s about 60 years overdue for them to take back declaring war from the White House and accept some joint responsibility for our conflicts.

Alas, no. The bill also allows for a simple majority vote to increase borrowing if “the United States engaged in military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security ” This weasily qualification, had it been in place in 2001, would have not prevented any of the explosion in debt during the Bush years as we were engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq deemed “vital to our national security”. Nor, since the 2001 so-called “use of force declaration” is still in legal effect, would I expect this amendment to halt future borrowing as long as one party holds a majority in both Houses of Congress.

But this proposed Amendment is worse than useless. Because a war or other military activity is the ONLY out, it gives the government a scary choice – keep wars burning somewhere or lose all of your fiscal flexibility. It actually incentivizes military action as a way to avoid choices on other spending. For that reason alone, it ought to be rejected.


3 Responses

  1. Look, just because we are in the fiscal toilet, it doesn’t mean you should be dissing my state. Your state has been circling the fiscal and ethics drain for quite awhile. BTW, it isn’t a race to see who goes down first.

  2. Hi WakeUp – I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and so claim the right to criticize my home state. But I see your point.

    One of the reasons I chose to highlight the similarity to California budget law is because so many self-described conservatives seem to hate everything California stands for. So maybe some people would withdraw their support if it could be rebranded as the “California Amendment.”

    The larger issue remains that HJ Res 1 provides incentives for major US military involvement around the world.

  3. Ok so we were neighbors with me having been raised in Orange County and now living in the Upper Mojave Desert. I’m sure that anything to do with our liberal state would be repugnant to the legislators in Alaska. And you’re right, section 5 has not worked at all in CA.

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