The Balanced-Budget Amendment Delusion

A balanced budget amendment won't halt the growth of big government


When I graduated from college in 1976, I got a job in Washington with the National Taxpayers Union, which was working to get a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget. Someone graduating today could sign up there and pursue the same goal. The balanced-budget amendment has never gone away and never come to pass.

Earlier this month, a vote in the House of Representatives fell short of the two-thirds majority needed for that measure. But we haven't seen the last of it. If Republicans capture the White House and the Senate next year, expect another push.

This may seem like the right moment for the amendment. In 1976, the national debt was $629 billion. Today, it exceeds $15 trillion. As our elected leaders continue spending more than the government takes in, a constitutional amendment looks like a fail-safe way to make them stop.

If only. One flaw is that it doesn't actually balance the budget. It merely requires Congress and the president to do so. But they can already do so—and they consistently fail to get serious about the deficit even when they face a stark obligation.

Last summer, it was hitting the debt ceiling. This week, it was the automatic cuts that would take effect if the congressional supercommittee couldn't agree on ways to reduce the deficit, which it didn't. In both cases, fiscal irresponsibility triumphed.

The reason politicians don't balance the budget is that they and their constituents aren't ready for the unthinkable realities this option would entail: higher taxes, reduced government benefits, or both. Those choices won't get any less excruciating if a balanced-budget amendment is ratified.

Given that reality, we could expect elected officials to find ways to evade the restriction. The amendment would allow a deficit if both houses agree by a three-fifths vote. Not only that, but a mere majority could authorize red ink when there is "a serious military threat to national security." And when is there not?

Even if Congress didn't suspend the requirement, it would have no trouble getting around it. What if it looks like you're going to run a deficit? You change your estimates to reduce your spending and boost your income. Voila! Deficit eliminated.

Or you put off spending until after the fiscal year ends, to balance this year's books. The Illinois state government has used this ploy for years, deferring pension contributions and making vendors wait months to be paid.

The experience of states does not inspire confidence in a balanced-budget rule. One common trick, says economist Josh Rauh of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is to underfund public pension funds by inflating expected returns. By his count, the underfunding for all 50 state governments totals $3 trillion.

Nor would the amendment curb the power of Washington. If it becomes harder for Congress to tax and spend, rest assured, advocates of big government will find other ways to get what they want.

Instead of passing laws to spend money for some purpose, they will pass laws forcing businesses, nonprofits, states or local governments to spend money for that purpose. The cost will be off the federal books, but it will still be there.

Even the strongest requirement is only as good as its enforcement. And there is no good way to enforce a balanced-budget rule. If Congress and the president may choose to toss it overboard every year, who's gonna stop them?

Probably not federal judges, who generally flee from matters that are the responsibility of the elected branches—which spending and taxing definitely are. If Congress and the president run a deficit in defiance of a constitutional command, this is what the judicial branch is likely to do: nothing.

Sounds terrible, but the alternative would be worse. Does anyone want federal courts ordering specific spending cuts or tax increases—in other words, usurping the primary functions of the elected branches? That's what judicial enforcement of a balanced-budget amendment would mean.

A balanced budget would be a good thing, so it's tempting to think a balanced-budget amendment would be a good thing. But it wouldn't be—any more than it would be a good thing to pass a constitutional amendment requiring strong bones and healthy teeth. It wouldn't succeed, and it would distract from what we need to do to reach the goal.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.


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  1. Good Cyber Monday Morning reason! Morning links at 9:06AM

    1. I need some numbers, Suki

      1. What is “Growth” in the body is called?

        Both capitalism and its necessary social organizing scheme, government, exhibit many characteristics of cancer.

        An excellent essay on the malignancy of growth was written by former USAF intelligence officer and presently practicing attorney Jeff Vail, as follows:

        The Problem of Growth
        Jeff Vail | March 21, 2008

        1. Another essay on growth in the body can be found here .

          1. They cover Friedman and his China worship enough around here.

        2. “Both capitalism and its necessary social organizing scheme, government”

          False, two people engaging in trade is capitalism, with no government required.

          Why would anyone care what you say when you ignorantly conflate growth with cancer and openly lie.

          1. Even capitalists say there has never been Pure? Capitalism without government.

            Just like the communists who claim their True? Communism can somehow operate without State aggression.

            Both are merely slight variations of invassive and aggressive agricultural city-Statism.

            1. “Even capitalists say… ”

              No they don’t, and even if one did, so what? They’d be wrong.

              Are you so fucking stupid that you think trotting out one example makes an argument?

              1. That’s what it does, every time it posts here it dredges up bullshit and presents the results as fact.

              2. …capitalism.

                That’s a constant refrain of the capitalism-mongers.

                And they sound just like the communism-mongers.

              3. Are you so fucking stupid that you think trotting out one example makes an argument?

                I made a whole career out of it.

        3. What is “Growth” in the body is called?


          Is this where you make a fool of yourself tortuously pretending growth = cancer?



          1. Doctor: You have a growth.

            Libertard: Oh, great! Natural mitosis!

            Doctor: Umm…no.

            Libertard: Is this where you make a fool of yourself tortuously pretending growth = cancer?

            Doctor: Ummm…no.

            1. And there you go proving you’re wrong again, pretending growth = cancer.

              And cancer isn’t “natural mitosis”, it’s the textbook definition of abnormal mitosis.

              Maybe you’d know that if you spent less time demonstrating your mental illness and more time learning.

              1. Maybe you’d know the difference between cancer and homeostasis that if you spent less time demonstrating your mental illness and more time learning.

                1. “Maybe you’d know the difference between cancer and homeostasis that if you spent less time ”

                  Could you try that again coherently?

                2. “homeostasis”

                  has nothing to do with what you just made a fool of yourself being wrong about

        4. What is “Growth” in the body is called?


          1. What is “Growth” in the body is called?

            Cold weather

              1. Who knew BP preferred cell movement over erect nipples?

                  1. Poor BP, he’s still stalking me 🙁

                1. why bother pretending rectal?

                  you never fool anyone

                  1. Coward with no name, what’s your theory?

                    1. why bother pretending rectal?

                      you never fool anyone

                    2. Don’t use my link and name, stalker.  It’s roommate creepy

                    3. BP, I love how you are such a silly boy but you never comment on my site anymore ;-(

        5. By the way, what happened to the primitivist gimmick?

          Got tired of using it as the pretense for getting your libertarian hate on?

          1. I’m more of a room service girl, and the only thing I’d ever shoot is a man

        6. “What is “Growth” in the body is called?”
          Piss poor English.

  2. Agree with the thoughts of the article, no matter how many laws are passed to protect against government debt increases, a politician will easily find a way to circumvent it.

    When he does he will have the full support of the many Tony’s of this world who will accuse those of pointing out the rule breaking as extremists, purists and cold hearted scrooges.

    One has to be a stoic when it comes to politics and the economy, the only thing that will halt government growth is when the economy can no longer resist the market realities anymore. Greece, Italy, France etc. all now are cutting back, not because of any new found principles of smaller government, but simply because it is the only thing they can do now.

    1. IIRC, George Will wrote about this same thing long ago. There is always something written into laws like these that allows the politicians to wriggle out of it.

    2. “…a politician will easily find a way to circumvent it”

      Yes, but their prodigality is related to self-profit. We need to address the cause first

      1. People tend to vote for politicians who promise them more as opposed to those that promise them less. The more you grow government the more you create scope for government corruption, hoping for a system of big government with honest politicians is as pointless as asking a teenager not to look at online porn.

        1. Big government regulations on the Land drawing artificial borders to restrict the free movement of people being responsible for their own food and families is the root problem.

          Officer, am I free to gambol about plain and forest?

          1. The loser who has not hunted an animal ever in his life (let alone with a spear) is here to lecture us on the virtues of hunting animals for a living.

            1. …who won’t admit their privation property is a big-government Land enTITLEment restricting free movement.

              1. …knows no bounds.

            2. It STILL can’t tell us how seven billion people could possibly live the shackbrah life.

          2. You obviously have no marketable skills.

        2. When everyone can vote, everyone loses.

    3. That was the purpose of the constitution, to put a leash on the federal government. Americans get around that by simply ignoring the constitution. It wouldn’t be possible for me to vote for you to take money from that other guy and give it to me or force that guy over there to live by my religious beliefs if the country was run constitutionally, and that’s clearly unfair until someone with different beliefs than mine tries to do it.

  3. The electronic sign in the photo does not seem to have enough spaces. When the debt reaches the 100 trillion mark they will, unfortunately, have to buy a new sign.

    1. I stand to be corrected but I think that the original sign at first did not cater for numbers greater than 9 trillion, they had to to replace it with an extra digit, the one you see now.

      1. Good point, Anacreon, but by then we’ll have been long into worldwide martial law brought on by the actions of governmental monkey-fucking.

        1. Where do I get my government sponsored sex monkey? I’m getting tired of this name!

          1. We’re still processing your paperwork.

            1. In the meantime, watch this instructional video:


  4. There isn’t any point in amending the Constitution until Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court start following it.

    1. Bingo! Amending a dead letter is useless.

      Amending the Constitution takes such a huge political effort. The pols would love to see concerned citizens piss away their political energy fighting for a meaningless amendment. Business as usual.

    2. “There isn’t any point in amending the Constitution until Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court start following it.”
      And that won’t happen until the dumb fuck electorate makes them!

    3. To think, I could have been wiping my butt with hemp paper instead of those damned poison ivy leaves. What a waste of good paper that constitution idea was, and to add injury to insult my bunghole still itches.

  5. The amendment may do no good, but I don’t see how it could do harm. And it *might* have some use, if only to shame the politicians who violate it. Cooking the books could then be berated as unconstitutional, not simply dishonest.

    As for the ability to circumvent it by 3/5, that means that unbalanced budgets would probably have to have an element of bipartisanship. But the “out” party would have an incentive to blame the “in” party for deficits, so the 3/5 barrier may even do something.

    Too bad the limits can be evaded in wartime – that can be dealt with by requiring a *declared* war before you can unbalance the budget by a majority. How often is Congress willing to straight-up declare war?

    1. …so why would the politicians hired to protect the Wall Street capitalist’s illegitimate property have any shame?

        1. I want to thank the Academy…

    2. It’s actually much more expensive to run a deficit through accounting fraud than just doing it openly. So there is some drawback to it.

      2/3 would be preferable to 3/5. And make the override vote only valid fr 30 days so they have to keep doing it. This isn’t ideal either. The constant continuing resolutions and near shutdowns of the federal government add additional cost due to the inability to plan properly. But if it actually had the effect of making deficits NOT the norm, then it’d be worth it.

    3. See T Sherman’s comment above.

    4. They successfully ignore the constitution right now, what good would another amendment for them to ignore do?

  6. There are ways that a BBA could be structured to avoid all (well, at least most) of these pitfalls. But the problem is that even the watered down version would never pass.

    1. How would you account for future liabilities?

      1. By outright banning most of the ones that have gotten us into trouble, and requiring the rest to be funded via non-fictional trust funds with non-fantasy accounting.

  7. White Man’s Ghost Dance!
    Constitution necromance!
    Paper savior needs enhanced!
    Conjure up the golden past!

    1. “Conjure up the golden past!”

      Says the idiot primitivist…

      1. White Man’s Ghost Dance!
        Constitution golden past!
        Paper savior needs enhanced!
        Conjure up what didn’t last!

        1. “Conjure up what didn’t last!”

          Says the idiot primitivist…

  8. 15 paragraphs on page 1, one paragraph on page 2.

    There’s a reason why every time I see a multi-page article, I click for the print version.

    1. That is a lot of cyber paper!

  9. I guess this is some more smart diplomacy.

    The political fallout from a NATO airstrike in Pakistan that was operated out of Afghanistan and killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers became clearer on Sunday, as Pakistan seethed over the attack and the United States scrambled to contain the damage to an already frayed relationship

    1. They are sending Salmon P. Chase to handle negotiations with the grieving families

        1. I’m finally on the board!

          1. BTW, you get to blow BP, Epinoria, Sugarflees, Grovvus Maximust,Warty, ProLib during pledge week

  10. Well…duh! The balanced budget amendment is just another Republican ploy to make it look like they’re opposed to big government, while leaving them free to expand it all they want, blaming Democrats all the way. It’s like the purity pledge young Christian women make. A guy with a fat wallet and tight butt makes that pledge evaporate like snow in Florida.

    1. …make it look like they’re opposed to big government.

    2. Meh…the Republican politicians do it because their constituency has at least a passing interest in keeping the government within some fiscal limits.

      1. I used to believe that, but I finally started believing my eyes instead. R’s are just D’s spelled differently. From social engineering to economic engineering the R’s are as disinterested in the constitution as the D’s, unless they’re in the minority when they magically (and temporarily) become strict constitutionalists and fiscal hawks.

      2. EVERYBODY has a passing interest in keeping spending under control….on things they don’t like. On things they do like….not so much. Republicans don’t like big government, unless it’s cracking down on abortionists, bombing the crap out of some third world cesspool, building a big beautiful new aircraft carrier or building a pointless fence on the border.

  11. “Congress shall make no law” has been interpreted to mean “Congress can make any law”, and “shall not be infringed” has been interpreted to mean “shall be infringed”.

    A balanced budget amendment would likely be interpreted as a mandate for deficit spending.

  12. Threadjack:


    Just shoot me!

    1. I hope he doesn’t have a dog 🙁

  13. The balanced budget amendment idea is nonsense, because Congress already has a pattern of circumventing its own rules. The recent “automatic cuts” that people like John McCain are eager to avoid is only the most recent example. I’m not sure how many know about this, but in the mid 1980s, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act was made law, requiring balanced budgets, but somehow it didn’t do anything. It’s like a burglar demanding more laws against burglary. Pure conflict of interest, and pure naivete to believe they’ll follow more of the same type of rules.

    1. Jobs have perks.
      Work for a restaurant and you get cheap or free food.
      Work at a theater and you can watch movies for free.
      Work in the making or enforcing of laws and you don’t have to obey them.

    2. It is a show boat. The votes are meaningless. They know the amendment will never pass. But voting for it allows them to claim to be for a balanced budget without actually balancing the budget. It is the equivalent of a fat person chaining the refrigerator shut but keeping the key.

    3. I’d totally forgotten that. I do remember that Hollings was shitting grits about the Clinton/republican supposed lack of deficit and rightly calling it smoke and mirrors. That was after he was out of office of course, but if anyone would recognize smoke and mirrors Fritz would be the guy. After all, he learned from Strom Thurmond, the longest serving dead man in senate history.

  14. I once accidentally smoked crack.

    Then I smoked it on purpose for ten years.

    1. Should’ve renamed to “Whitney Houston” for that one.

    2. Get off my pipe bitch!

  15. “If Congress and the president may choose to toss it overboard every year, who’s gonna stop them?”

    Yes, I realize the Constitution has been usurped, but if this truly where we are at it’s time to look for some property in the mountains of Colorado. If we have come to the point where we don’t EXPECT our leaders to follow the Constitution, we are too far gone to fix it.

    1. is

      Damn verbs!

    2. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts…

      Taxes. Debts. Constitutional. Problem?

      1. Um, uh, FdA’s point was that if a balanced budget amendment were to pass, only an idiot (like you) would expect it to be followed since rational people (unlike you) expect the rest of the constitution to be ignored.

        1. “Imposts”

          What a stoopid fuck.

  16. How about this:

    Section 1: The fiscal year of the United States shall be defined as a full calendar year ending on October 31.

    Section 2: No bill of appropriations shall be drafted in either house of Congress until such time as the President shall deliver a report to Congress detailing the amount of funds actually collected and in the possession of the general treasury for appropriation.

    Section 3: The President shall have exactly thirty days to from October 31st to deliver a report, in writing, to Congress detailing the quantity of funds actually collected and in the possession of the treasury. Failure to deliver this report shall constitute an impeachable offense with strict liability.

    Section 4: The Congress shall pass no law appropriating funds beyond what has been actually collected by the treasury with the sole exception of a law to appropriate funds to support a war in which the forces of the United States are engaged and where Congress has issued a formal declaration of war.

    Section 5: At no time shall the United States be obligated to fund any program, make good on any contract or obligation enacted prior to the ratification of this amendment that would cause the Congress to be unable to fund the enumerated functions of the United States government.

  17. Considering that “Congress shall make no law” has been interpreted to be “Congress can do whatever the fuck it wants”, and “shall not be infringed” has been interpreted to mean “Congress can do whatever the fuck it wants”, I imagine that what you posted would also be interpreted to mean “Congress can do whatever the fuck it wants” and they will continue to do so as long as idiot voters keep rewarding them by reelecting them.

    1. This was a reply to Mike T.

    2. Actually, the SCOTUS tends to be very narrow in its interpretation of “shall make now law.” It’s their history on the explicit language of the second amendment that is problematic. However, this particular SCOTUS has shown a lot of common sense in how they interpret the 2nd via the 14th, such as when they kicked DC’s ass over the gun ban.

      The problem is that not enough lawsuits are being filed before this SCOTUS. If libertarians and conservatives would get groups like the Institute for Justice enough cash to launch a small blitzkrieg on the ATF and more liberal states, change would likely happen a lot faster.

      1. If libertarians and conservatives would get groups like the Institute for Justice enough cash…

        Donate money to lawyers by choice? That’s good.

        I’ve got one.

        A baby seal walks into a club. BAM!
        Get it? Clubbing baby seals, baby seal walks into a club?

        Wait, wait. I’ve got another one.

        My uncle shoots pool with a twelve… gauge.
        Get it? Instead of a 12oz cue he shoots it with a shotgun?

        Wait, wait, I’ve got another one…

        1. A 12 oz pool cue? Is your uncle a smurf?

          1. Lightweight carbon fiber composite cues – all the greats use them these days.

            1. Ya won’t catch me using one of them pansy sticks.

  18. “A balanced budget amendment won’t halt the growth of big government.”
    Nor will it ever happen.

  19. The solution is a) To make the amendment enforceable by tying it to each individual member’s eligibility to serve in either branch of Congress and b) to allow borrowing at Congress’ discretion without limit or supermajority requirement — but eliminate the individual Congressman’s eligibility to serve as soon as too much has been borrowed. No courts or Excecutive vetoes involved.

    As soon as the total amount of debt incurred by the US in any form during a Congressman’s tenure in office exceeds total federal outlays for the current year, the Congressman and all who took the oath at that time or sooner, becomes ineligible to serve in Congress ever again (whether elected or appointed). And if seated in Congress, he cannot vote. And if he does vote, his votes are null. And any law passed by a majority that comprised an ineligible member would be null and void and non-binding in any way. (I write all these seemingly redundant clauses because Congressmen tend to ignore the law as it applies to them).

    So, for example, if Congress borrows 43% of what it spends each year, all of Congress would be replaced in the election following the third year. Congress would NEVER let that happen. And yet, Congress could borrow moderately and Congressmen could serve for decades.

    1. I meant to write “at the same time or earlier”, not “…sooner”.

  20. Mike T, I agree with sarcasmic — Congress would ignore the requirement and do as it pleases. Plus, a Democrat President would probably still not be impeached owing to partisan loyalty. Democrats would not impeach a sitting Democrat President if he were beheading babies in the Rose Garden.

    The only solution is one that takes away a Congressman’s eligibility to hold office (i.e. to suck at the federal teat).

    1. What you propose would be spun by the populists as taking away from the people their right to choose who will represent them.
      You evil, evil man. Next you’ll be accused of only wanting white males who own property being allowed to vote.

      If a member of Congress chooses to ignore the Constitution, then obviously that member of Congress has received a mandate from their constituents to do so.

      The nice thing about democracy is that there are no limits on government. No limits at all.

  21. The amendment may do no good, but I don’t see how it could do harm.

    Without a cap on spending, it becomes a mandate to raise taxes.

    I like the idea of making a real balanced budget amendment enforceable by automatically making Congresscritters ineligible to stand for re-election if they violate the amendment.

    1. make them ineligible to go home whatever the issue…
      why do you think they had the deadline for the stupid committee right before Thanksgiving…
      stick that “too big to fail” where the sun doesn’t shine! isn’t the Senate to big to fail. isn’t the House to big to fail. isn’t the U. S. of A. to big to fail! you get back in there and fix it or the next to go will be your bathroom privileges…

  22. The Supreme Court already lets the government get away with violating the constitution when it demonstrates a “compelling state interest” in doing so. I’d guess the Supreme Court would let them get away with saying “but we couldn’t agree on budget cuts and there is a compelling state interest in keeping government running”.

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  23. As long as the majority of American people are willing to vote for whoever will ignore the constitution the way the voter wants it ignored there is no amendment that can make any difference, people will just vote for politicians who will ignore the amendment. We have 2 political parties, the majority of the people in those parties do not want the constitution adhered to, and the independents generally will vote for whoever promises them the biggest slice of the pie whether constitutional or not. Amend away, but just be prepared for the voter to ignore it.

    The American people don’t want a constitutional republic, they want a democracy where you can use your vote to further your own interests or punish your perceived enemies. Until that changes, nothing will change. All politicians are doing is taking advantage of that fact.

  24. You assholes are pissing me off. If you all are so fucking smart, why don’t you come up with some solutions. How about this, we’ll follow the (puff puff give rule) which means for every two jokes we’ll give one solution. Assholes.

    1. OK, you start first.

      My truth is that there is no solution. Either we have a dictatorial system where people can’t vote so we can blame the politicians or we end up with people voting for the other guys money and then blame the politicians anyway instead of ourselves. The concept of constitutional rule becomes invalid as soon as you can vote for someone who promises to ignore the constitution or use it in unintended ways, and that’s all it takes. Almost before the ink was dry people were figuring out ways to bend/stretch/ignore it while seeming to adhere to it in order to carry out their personal social/economic engineering schemes.

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  27. We need to be teachers for the right way to handle money

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  28. The National Taxpayers Union issued a response, link below. Chapman’s piece is just misguided and purely negative. Luckily, Chapman’s arguments are weak, and there is hope for restoring America’s fiscal strength.


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