Paul Ryan

Today's 'Balanced Budget Amendment' Is a Month Late and $1 Trillion Short

Thursday's vote is an empty gesture. Worse, it's a hypocritical one.



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.

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  1. I’m about as cynical as one can be about this vote. For one thing, the House often passes stuff in hopes the Senate will kill it. For another thing, even if this amendment is adopted in Congress and the states, Congress could still ignore it like they ignore much of the rest of the Constitution.

    So it’s not as if I think they’re pure-hearted or that the amendment will be some kind of cure-all.

    But at least it will set a benchmark, so that if Congress is unbalancing the budget people can say, “hey, that’s unconstitutional!”

    It should also trigger some response in the “the law is the law” crowd, the types who think that so long as something is on the books it should be enforced. This crowd has been responsible for helping enforce all sorts of bad laws – why not give them a halfway-decent law whose enforcement they can attend to?

    1. It’s like the fable of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – once Congress, however cynically, starts a formal discussion of whether unbalanced budgets should be constitutional, the whole thing can spiral out of control and actually get some Serious Discussion of the issues.

      This does not require pretending that the Republicans are particularly virtuous.

      It means that a throw-away political gesture might some day get taken more seriously than the authors intended.

      Maybe it will happen, maybe not, but let’s not categorically reject bills or constitutional amendments because the sponsors are hacks.

      1. Seriously, Congress would never consider such an amendment except for hypocritical, hackish reasons. So if your argument is not to give them credit, fine. But if your argument is not to support an amendment until it’s offered in good faith, you’ll be waiting quite a while.

        “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue” /probably some Frenchman

        Let’s focus on the positive – Congressional leaders are admitting that what they do for a living should be illegal.

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    2. It should also trigger some response in the “the law is the law” crowd, the types who think that so long as something is on the books it should be enforced.

      Those people aren’t as principled as you might believe. If balancing the budget meant they would lose their job or government benefit, they’d do a 180 faster than you could say “hypocrite.”

    3. The Rule of Law should be enforced. The real problem is that all sorts of set-asides and exemptions always accompany bad laws and bad laws tend to be selectively enforced. The more bad laws enforced on every American, the less indifferent Americans will be toward bad laws and demand the these bad laws be repealed.

      Additionally, bad laws should be challenged as unconstitutional immediately and vigorously. Rule of Law also mandates that laws be constitutional which many laws are not.

      1. Not only should laws be constitutional, they should be just. When the law is unjust, people lose their respect for all laws. Even the just ones.
        Or as Bastiat put it:
        “When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
        Unfortunately, laws can be both unjust and constitutional, and for that there is no legal remedy that I know of.

        1. “Just” is one of those words that can be hijacked and taken for a ride. If a government is very limited there won’t be many laws anyway, so few laws that can be unjust anyway.

          Slavery was unjust to some and constitutional early on. Many Americans pushed for slavery to end peacefully and it almost certainly would have with modern machines doing farm work and other manual labors, like washing clothes. The Civil War came along before then and settled that slavery issue.

          1. There was no reference to slavery in the constitution other than the 3/5 compromise.

          2. “Just” is one of those words that can be hijacked and taken for a ride.

            Any word can get hijacked and taken for a ride. The left has a very good track record of taking words that mean something, and redefining them to mean the polar opposite.

            Liberal for example is a word that has been completely perverted.

            Justice isn’t too far behind, with “economic justice” and “social justice” hijacking the word to mean the polar opposite. Any enforcement of [adjective] justice requires injustice.

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    4. Ryan is teeing up what would turn into mandated tax increses, should it pass. If the language is changed to prohibit automatic budget increases [outlaw baseline budgeting] along with prohibiting “off budget” games, there might be a ray of hope. But… not going to happen. Todays GOP is being run by progs, and their job is to preserve government expansion [with “efficiency” arguments or whatever] and setting up mechanisms for democrats to use when they get back in charge. We have a uniparty – it justs maintains two offices/two charters as the punch & judy show makes for better fundraising while creating plausible deniability when it comes to destroying the dollar.

      1. I’d say that if Congress fails to submit a balanced-budget amendment to the states, it’s because they don’t want to.

        Of course they’ll hold symbolic votes for the benefit of those voters who are vaguely aware that there’s something wrong and are gullible enough to believe that Congress is doing anything about it.

        But I’d be shocked if both houses of Congress submit an amendment to the states.

        What do they have to gain from the resulting debate in the heartland over unbalanced budgets?

        It takes an unusual combination of circumstances for Congress to officially propose to curb its own power – even if they anticipate violating or evading the new restriction as soon as it’s imposed.

        Which is why pending further evidence, I’ll simply assume that they’re arranging things so that it might pass one house of Congress, but never both houses.

      2. Raising taxes has consequences. Read George the First’s lips. Spending money borrowed from future generations doesn’t.

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  2. Alt-text: You gonna cry? Boehner would have cried.

  3. Balanced budgets are meant for the next Dem POTUS.

    Then, and only then, the GOP will get serious about cutting spending.

    1. There won’t be a Democrat president ever again.

      The Democratic Party is fading into history as the party of slavery, the KKK, Jim Crowe, and left-wing socialists.

    2. Let’s be clear. They wouldn’t be serious about cutting spending, they’d be serious about making Americans suffer while a Democrat is around to blame.

      1. If that also included cutting spending, that would be a win! Losers and deadbeats who milk the system SHOULD suffer. Suffering is what prompts people to take actions that make them better off in the long run.

  4. Today’s ‘Balanced Budget Amendment’ Is a Month Late and $1 Trillion Short

    Be an American not an American’t.

  5. Here’s a thought – maybe Congressional leaders rely on the wink-and-a-nudge approach that a balanced budget amendment won’t pass but might look good to the rubes.

    I suspect that the last thing they want would be for such an amendment to actually pass, because though they could always ignore it like the rest of the Constitution, the political fallout of having their free-spending ways being subject to a formal political debate and a formal prohibition in the Constitution, would simply be too much of a hassle for them.

    So probably they *hope* to get the cynical reaction indicated by Reason, giving them enough cover not to send the idea to the states, while signalling to low-info voters that they’re against unbalanced budgets. Best of both worlds for them.

    But if their bluff was called – if people said, “wow, yes, let’s get this passed and sent to the states as soon as possible!” they wouldn’t like it.

    The *true* cynical approach is to take them at their word and proclaim support for their bold initiative and promise to help them get it through both houses and then through 38 states.

    Does anyone think for a moment they actually want that? But they’re playing with fire by pretending they do.

  6. Epic. Ryan has produced nothing but continuing resolutions and an omnibus farce [funding his “opposition” from the treasury]. This is what he’s good at: fandances purposely designed to hit the wall in the senate.

    1. Evidently he was reluctant to assume the Speaker role. He never seemed like a leader to me.

      I also notice there are supposedly only two contenders for the position. The position might not be worth the extra pay, which is why people are not fighting for it.

      1. Nobody wants it? Don’t they know the Speaker will be President once Trump and Pence are impeached and removed?

      2. Did none of them watch house of cards?

  7. I’m sure that the Republicans in Congress really want a balanced budget. I’m also sure that they really want to go to Heaven. In both cases, it appears, they’re unwilling to do anything to speed the process of getting there.

  8. You can be sure that the inclusion of this little gem will result in a perpetual state of war so that we can continue our borrow/spend ways.

    Permits exception only in the case of a declaration of war.

    You want more welfare spending?? We’ll just declare war again in Somewhereistan.

  9. Found this on wikipedia:Article V of the Constitution specifies that if the legislatures of two-thirds of the states apply to Congress for a constitutional amendment by means of an amendment-proposing convention, then Congress must call that convention. A total of 44 states have submitted applications for a balanced budget amendment, at some time in the past.[21] However, they were not outstanding simultaneously as some have expired or been rescinded. As of 27 December 2016, there were 28 outstanding applications according to the Balance Budget Amendment Task Force which advocates for such an amendment.[22] On 24 February, 2017, Wyoming became the 29th state to call for a convention to pass a balanced budget amendment.[23]2/3 of 50 is 34 — only 5 states to go. I had no idea this was so close.

  10. How a Balanced Budget Amendment Would Give the Federal Government
    Lawful Power Over Whatever They Want ” Publius- Huldah’s Blog 2016/02/02 / how-a-balanced-budget- amendment-would-give-the- federal-government-lawful-power- over-whatever-they-want/

  11. Balanced Budget Amendment: The Solution? Or Deathblow?
    Our Constitution Limits Spending to the Enumerated Powers
    Our Constitution doesn’t permit the federal government to spend money on whatever they want. If Congress obeyed our Constitution, they would limit spending to the enumerated powers listed in the Constitution. Since the Constitution delegates to Congress only limited and narrowly defined authority to spend money, excessive federal spending is not the result of a defective Constitution, but of disregarding the existing constitutional limitations on federal spending.
    A BBA would have the opposite effect of what you have been told. Instead of limiting the federal government, it legalizes spending which is now unconstitutional as outside the scope of the enumerated powers; transforms the federal government into one which has power over whatever they decide to spend money on; and does nothing to reduce federal spending.…..deathblow/

    1. Well unless it specifically adds in new reasons for spending, it would technically just be limiting the spending they can do on the already enumerated powers, which they just ignore anyway.

  12. A well thought out balanced budget amendment should have gone in decades ago. There should be reasonable exemptions for being in a REAL declared war, and maybe a few other things… But if properly constructed it could work wonders. If they HAD to jack taxes to jack spending, people would push back a lot harder. The hidden debt/inflation tax is just too hard for most to notice.

  13. Excessive government spending is bad for the economy, but in today’s fiat money system a balanced federal budget is also bad. If the U.S. government begins balancing its budget, the money supply will no longer increase, and as the economy grows the value of each dollar will increase relative to the amount of goods and services it can buy. This may appear to be a good thing compared to the opposite situation we face today, but it isn’t. Excess money creation favors debtors over creditors, allowing them to discharge their debts in ever-cheaper dollars while their nominal wages are rising. Freezing the currency in place would favor creditors over debtors, who would be forced to pay back their debts in appreciating dollars as their nominal wages were being forced down. Neither outcome is desirable. If the goal is a stable unit of account and medium of exchange, the growth rate of the money supply must approximate the growth rate of goods and services in the economy.

    To create the additional money needed to keep the dollar’s value stable in a fiat economy, the federal government *must* spend more money than it receives in taxes. This will not raise the national debt if the government issues fiat money directly instead of borrowing it. Under our debt-based monetary regime, the national debt must increase as the money supply rises. Under a debt-free system the money supply can increase even as the national debt is being slowly paid off. See .

    1. All true as you say it… But bear in mind in a situation where the value of the money is increasing, interest rates in a free market would also adjust themselves accordingly. Generally they would go lower accounting for the fact that the future value would be higher anyway.

  14. I wonder if they’re going to put the big doomsday debt clock up at the next RNC convention? That way we know they’re really really serious this time!
    So I can vote for the party that says they’re fiscally responsible and spends Trillions in debt, or I can vote for the party that says they’re fiscally responsible and spends Trillions in debt?
    I really thing this two party duopoly is working out really well!

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