Thursday's planned vote in the House of Representatives on a so-called balanced budget amendment perfectly sums up the current era of Congress under Republican control. Coming the day after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) announced his decision to retire, the metaphor is even more apt.
Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010 with promises to oppose the runaway spending of the Obama and Bush eras, with their stimulus and bailouts and expansion of government control over health care. Conservatives elected by the newly founded Tea Party movement railed against trillion-dollar deficits that threatened to bankrupt the country and the GOP got in line, at least rhetorically. The Republican Party platform in 2012 promised "immediate reductions in federal spending" and "long-range fiscal control." Ryan became the dashing young leader of the fiscal hawks, with his charts and graphs predicting economic catastrophe unless drastic action was taken. He had a plan to balance the budget, and he parlayed his commitment to fiscal austerity into the chairmanship of the powerful House Budget Committee, and then a turn as House speaker.
If you knew nothing about what this Republican-run Congress has done for the past 15 months, Thursday's vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment would make perfect sense. It would be the crowning achievement of a conservative government that—having rid themselves of a spendthrift Democratic president—pledged to set the nation on a course toward fiscal sanity; the next step perhaps being a constitutional amendment to spare future lawmakers the temptation of straying from Ryan's carefully calculated path.
Instead, Thursday's vote is an empty gesture. Worse, it's a hypocritical one. Ryan's final term in Congress will be remembered for the passage of a major tax cut, yes; but also a massive $1.3 trillion spending binge that will guarantee trillion-dollar deficits for at least the next 10 years, and probably much longer.
Passing a balanced budget amendment won't change that.
"There is no one on Capitol Hill, and certainly no one on Main Street, that will take this vote seriously," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told Politico.
Without a plan to achieve a balanced budget and efforts to implement one, the amendment is not a serious proposal, says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
"We need a budget with a long-term fiscal plan that can be implemented and addresses our unsustainable debt, head-on, not more meaningless messaging, delay, and denial," she said in a statement.
The time to pass that budget, and to take substantial steps towards addressing the debt, was over the past few months. Instead, Congress voted to hike spending by $400 billion over the next two years, shattering the very spending caps that Ryan had once campaigned to impose. Republicans agreed to just keep on funding Obama-era domestic programs they'd literally spent years railing against, and threw billions to the Pentagon without even waiting for the conclusion of an ongoing audit of the federal government's most labyrinthine department.
Trump signed the spending bill—but only after complaining about it, threatening to veto it, and then saying that he'd never sign another bill like it ever again. More empty gestures.
Combined with last year's tax reforms, the spending bill will produce annual deficits of at least $1 trillion for the rest of the Trump presidency, the Congressional Budget Office reported this week. Which means that the tax bill Ryan sold as a first step to reducing the overall cost of government will only have put our fiscal situation further out of wack. If Congress does not allow individual tax rate reductions to expire as planned in the middle of next decade, the deficit will balloon by another $722 billion.
By 2028, the CBO projects the national debt to equal the nation's overall economic output, with our debt-to-GDP ratio reaching levels "far greater than the debt in any year since just after World War II."
Knowing all that, Republicans will try to sell today's vote as an exercise in fiscal responsibility.
"We don't see this as a show vote. We need this. It's something that we've been talking about for years," Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told Politico earlier this week.
Yes, the GOP has done a lot of talking. And, in theory, a balanced budget amendment is a pretty good idea. But after what Republicans have done to the federal budget in the past four months, pushing this amendment feels like "duplicitous pandering and vacuous virtue signaling," as conservative commentator Barbara Boland put it.
Even if it passes the House today, this amendment is a long way from meaning anything. It would need a super-majority in both chambers of Congress, and three-quarters of the states—38 out of 50—would need to ratify it.
There are also very real questions about what the amendment would actually do if it did pass. Are entitlement programs that run on autopilot subject to the amendment? Are there exceptions for deficit spending during a recession or in the event of a war? It's not even clear what the enforcement mechanism would be.
In this case, worrying about the particulars is unnecessary. The goal here is not to actually pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but to be able to say they voted to pass this amendment. To be able to play campaign ads in North Carolina and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that talk about how Republicans are standing up for a balanced federal budget—even though the facts say the exact opposite.