There has been a lot of hooplah regarding a Balanced Budget Amendment lately, and I really hate to throw cold water all over the BBA proponents, but it is no way to solve the problem of out of control Federal spending or limit the size of government.
The first and most obvious argument I have to make against it is that the text of the proposed amendment includes an exemption for the existence of an approved armed conflict, which there has been existence of such since 2001 for military intervention in Afghanistan, and another added for the war in Iraq in 2003, that have not been concluded. There is no requirement for additional expenditures over the limit of 18% of GDP to be dedicated toward any such conflict, just merely the existence of an approved armed conflict, active or not, to waive the 2/3 vote requirement to approve exceeding the limit of spending or increasing taxes. If we had had this amendment in our constitution since at least 2001, nothing about any of the events of the last decade would have changed. It would not have stopped the bailouts. It would not have stopped ObamaCare, the stimulus package, additional omnibus spending, nor would it have prevented the regulatory mortgage cluster f___ from taking down the economy and ending up with taxpayers on the hook for trillions in Fannie and Freddie liabilities. There is no ditching any legal liability for off budget antics that end in disaster, someone will have to pay for it, and there is no prohibition of such antics included in the amendment.
I have been told that the problem of out of control spending is really bad, something has to be done about it, and this, even if imperfect is worth trying. I do not agree with this stance, and do not want this inserted into the constitution for a variety of reasons. One is that spending is not the problem, it is a symptom of the larger problem of out of control government, period. If we attempt this as a remedy without first understanding the core problem completely, we open ourselves up to tacit acquiescence to government as it exists today and unforeseeable consequences of further interpretation by the courts. The reason the spending is out of control is because there is no longer any coherent delineation of Federal powers, and no clear definition of Federal responsibilities, so it helps itself to any and every imaginable exercise of power, and it takes money, lots of it, to do that. If there is anything worth preserving, if only in memory for the time being, is the delineation of power. There will still be opportunity to change the status of what is unless we put this abomination into the constitution of government, injecting more possible legal argument to ignoring the delineation of powers and adding to the obstacles to be overcome in restoration of the original meaning of the commerce clause.
Then, there are more practical reasons for opposing the BBA and they have to do with what at least one eventual effect of it will be. Politicians love power and love to spend our money getting and maintaining it. Legal limits to these goals are just inconveniences to them, they will develop ways around those limits and keep on telling all of us what to do with our property, divesting us of the fruits of our labor, controlling us, etc… for their own benefit and that of their friends. If it means going out and finding some evil dictator who deserves to be shot in the face with a hellfire to achieve their goals, it’s nothing to them. Even if the BBA somehow could enforce spending limits in peacetime, which I have have not found convincing evidence it would, there is nothing preventing the creation of a constant state of war so that the limits could be waived by the conflict exemption. If they want to impose nationalized healthcare or expropriate the rest of the financial system, it is but a small price to pay in the name of perceived ideological fairness. Our kids will not have a moment of peace, ever because the desire of politicians to spend will trump any desire for peace. Those who are insisting on this as remedy for spending should include a prohibition of conscription to avoid as much loss of life as possible.
In addition, there is a problem of trying to rely on government limiting itself to 18% of GDP (rather arbitrary, no?) when it controls all the bureaus responsible for measuring economic performance. Government doesn’t exactly have a reputation for honesty, and has been known to disseminate misleading information, even when evidence to the contrary is all around us.
There is also no guarantee here for those who count on government to pass a budget every year. If you are upset about not having had a budget for 1,000+ days, this won’t help you. It requires the President to submit a budget to congress every year, but there is no requirement to pass one into law. Congress could just muddy the water, keeping the baseline going with continuing resolutions and no one will really know how much is being spent at given point in time, when it’s time to stop spending, or who won’t get paid. There have been questions about whether the Treasury has authority to pay any sum dictated by congress as a consequence of legislation, and it could just keep paying the bills over the budget limit, and we would be on the hook for that anyway.
There are just too many holes in this idea, and too many likely negative side effects for this thing to even be considered a reasonable solution the the problem. I will comment later on what I think would solve the problem, but for now I have some personal business that needs attention.