Monday, August 22, 2005

Proposal One: A Balanced Budget Amendment

Earlier this month, Mark Satin, Centrist thinker and publisher of the Radical Middle newsletter, published a 12-point creative Centrist agenda that he feels, if adopted, could rid Centrists of the “mushy middle” label and propel us to prominence.

Here at The Yellow Line, we vowed to discuss each point. And so we will. Over the next several weeks we will write about each of the 12 points and hopefully spur debate on their merits, drawbacks and feasibilities.

Proposal One is:

Balanced budget amendment. As James Fallows memorably conveys in a recent article ("Countdown to a Meltdown," Atlantic Monthly, July-August 2005), current fiscal “policy” is going to bankrupt this nation, possibly even before the Baby Boom Generation now in charge dies off. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects record deficits totaling $1.2 trillion over the next five years alone.
Congress should pass a Balanced Budget Amendment. In an exuberant, contentious democracy, voluntary “pay-as-you-go” Congressional rules can never work. The Amendment should require Congress to raise enough revenue each year to cover the next year’s projected expenditures -- and to pay off some proportion of our mountainous debt as well.

In short, I strongly agree with this. A balanced budget amendment was actually part of The Contract With America but never got through the Senate. Of course, nowadays, even Republicans have little use for fiscal responsibility. And that’s why this can be such an important issue for Centrists.

If Centrists aren’t going to stand up and oppose the excesses and fiscal irresponsibility of the federal government, who will? You don’t have to be an economist to understand the severely negative consequences that will come from running up our national debt and yearly deficits. There’s only so long that we can carry such a heavy debt load before our economy suffers.

I’ve always felt that Centrists can generally be defined by their support of responsible action (on a personal and governmental level). And surely fiscal responsibility should be the cornerstone of any Centrist economic plan.


At 12:37 PM, Blogger Dr. Ernie said...

Nice! Where liberals push social responsibility, and conservatives personal responsibility, we centrists push for total responsibility.

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

This has gotta be a no-brainer for support. An important question is, "Where are the teeth?" That is, we amend the Constitution so that the budget must be balanced -- how do we enforce it?

The first thought I have comes from an example from my beloved PA. Legislators are restricted from voting themselves pay raises -- the raises, according to PA law, may only be enacted after the next election cycle. So what did our reps do? They voted for a pay raise, and then voted that for the remainder of their terms, they will get checks for "unvouchered expenses" which, coincidentally, are equal to exactly the amount of their raises.

There is significant outrage among Keystone-staters, and a lot of reps are now publicly announcing they will not take the unvouchered expenses -- probably because they see the writing on the wall.

Back to the main point: (1) Should the threat of being un-elected be the main method for enforcing the BBA? And (2) how can we ensure that there will be enough voter outrage to make sure this holds true?

At 2:58 PM, Blogger gljunket said...

Thank you for joining Tom Strong in this meaty debate. I think it has serious potential and look forward to lots of comments. FYI, in MN we have a balanced budget requirement, and this year the legislature grid-locked so bad on it they had to shut down the state gov (partially) and charge the taxpayers for a special session to get it done. Of course the "cry" is "throw the ALL the bums out!" We'll see....

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Tom Strong said...

Great. Now I feel like an airhead with my hunger-driven, ADD-style post.

(Mental note: Before you post anything, make sure Alan hasn't already said it with greater clarity and depth.)

At 4:59 PM, Blogger Rob Jackson said...

Me? I'm spectical of anything the public is calling a "no brainer"! This is how California gets into so much trouble with its government by referendum. Individual no-brainers pass without thought of how the bill reacts to or affects other laws. Requiring the government to cough up every penny spent every year seems incredibly short-sighted.

I'm willing to bet that if rampant over-spending is irresponsible, then rampant zero-sum spending is equally irresponsible. I'm imagining a situation where we need to exceed the budget for clearly good and beneficial purposes but can not because of the constitutional limits we've placed on ourselves.

And if a balanced budget is such a no-brainer, why don't we elect representatives who are fiscally responsible? Could it be that sometimes over-spending is the responsible thing to do?

It seems like support for this amendment is just a strong response to glaring irresponsibility and not necessarily over-spending.

Besides, over-spending is the American Way. Just ask Visa, MasterCard or American Express.

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous wj said...

Before getting too enthused about a Balance Budget Amendment, look at how it has worked for the states. Take California:
- has had a balanced budget requirement in teh state constitution for decades
- started running big deficits a few years ago (when the bubble burst)
- shows no sign of balancing the budget any time soon.

So it looks like a nice idea, and might work for a few years, but it's a long-term solution only if there is some mechanism to enforce it.

At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Corey said...

One of the best arguments against the amendment that I've heard is that it is basically an amendment for the deficit, not for spending. If you really did pass a BBA, you would basically leave the politicians with 2 choices... cut spending or raise taxes. Cutting spending means cutting programs that voters like. That is risky for an elected politician, so the most likely result would be that taxes would get raised to allow the govt to keep spending like my wife in a shoe store.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Tom: Not an airhead post at all. In fact, it's a great lead-in to Alan's launching of a point-by-point analysis of the platform.

Now we just have to figure out how blogger messed up and posted them out-of-order ... ;)

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Some thoughts...

The Contract With America amendment proposal included language that would allow Congress to essentially override the amendment with a 3/5ths vote of both houses. So, if there was a need to borrow a little (say in times of war) then Congress could do so. The 3/5ths majority would help make sure there was a real need to borrow.

As for the "cutting programs or raising taxes" point people have made--yep, that's the trade-off. The people can then decide if they prefer the taxes or the reduced spending and vote for the representative that supports their side. Anyone who has ever taken a glance through the national budget knows that a LOT can be cut. We can do this without taking away essential services.

As for the states who have had bad experiences with balanced budget amendments, that's not quite comparable as states are often required by federal madate to spend money on certain programs and thus have less control over their budgets. Additionally, there hasn't been enough time to find out what will happen in these states. Voters and politicians are still negotiating the waters.

Finally, as for how it's enforced. A President would be doing a great disservice if he or she signed into law an unconstitutional budget. I would hope the amendment would work simply because no President would want to be accused of clearly violating the constitution. But, if one did, I imagine the courts would intervene--although who would have standing to sue is something that would have to be figured out.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger amba said...

Alan -- the override provision could really make it work.

At 8:04 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Amen to amba. I think the 3/5 override is the clincher. One would hope the President would not knowingly and openly violate the Consitution by signing an unbalanced budget, but states violate their constitutions all the time on this. I know, and you're right, states are different -- but I think expecting the Constitution to prevent overspending on principle, with no checks & balances, is like the obese man who thought he could prevent himself from eating by putting a padlock on his refrigerator, but who kept the key in his pocket. Overspending is too strong an urge for one person to resist.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Visual verification! Sweet! Thank you, Alan, thank you, Blogger!


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