JACK SPENCER: Balanced budget amendment, an imaginary fix

Adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be a well-intended measure that fails to accomplish its goal. The idea is based on a naive premise that politicians play by the rules; when in reality they don’t. Instead of adhering to a Constitutional Balanced Budget provision they’d resort to voodoo accounting and deception to circumvent it.

A balanced budget amendment would require Congress and the President to balance the federal budget each year. Those who call for such an amendment and the millions of voters who support the plan are attempting to address an imminent and daunting threat. Through the irresponsible actions of politicians and special interests in Washington, D.C. the national debt has passed the $17 trillion mark. To put that into perspective, a stack of $1,000 bills would need to be 1,139 miles high to equal $17 trillion.

The interest owed on that $17 trillion-plus debt has doubled in each of the past four years. Virtually everyone knows that individuals can’t run up massive debts without facing economic ruin. The same holds true for governments; except that government can delay the day of reckoning a long, long time. However, the longer the day of reckoning is delayed the worse the economic calamity will be when it arrives. This is not theoretical; economic disasters are deadly and millions of Americans will suffer severely when the nation’s debt bubble bursts.

How did we get into this ridiculous and untenable situation? Congresses past a present, particularly those that served with President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush, consistently spent far more money than the U.S, government had, in fact, more money than anyone could realistically have had. They aren’t just addicted to spending like drunken sailors; they’re addicted to spending like drunken billionaire sailors.

Those who advocate for a balanced budget amendment have correctly identified the first step that should be taken if the U.S. is to have any chance to avoid the otherwise inevitable economic upheaval. Congresses and presidents, both current and in the future, should stop overspending. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Unfortunately a balanced budget amendment would not put an end to the federal government’s spending sprees. To understand why, one must ask a straight forward question. Who would enforce the amendment? The answer is that it would still be up to the very same people who have always been in position to punish those who overspend – the nation’s voters.

If a balanced budget amendment were enacted, numerous budgetary tricks would be used to claim a federal budget was balanced; even though it really wasn’t. Future estimated revenues, heavy borrowing and scores of creative ways of manipulating numbers are just some of devices available to cloud red ink. Meanwhile, the spenders would declare a perpetual state of crisis existed that required the spending to continue. Actually, they already do that all of the time anyway.

Addicts are habitual liars, and those who are addicted to government spending are no exception. They start by lying to themselves and then they lie with seemingly deep conviction to everyone else. Does anyone really doubt that those on the side of a continual upward spiral of spending are capable of looking into a TV camera and insisting a decidedly unbalanced budget was technically balanced? Of course they would also have charts and computer-generated models to which they could refer that would supposedly “prove” their arguments.

Perhaps, those outraged by what was taking place would turn to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether a budget was balanced or not. For the sake of argument, let’s say the high court agreed that it wasn’t. Then what? All that would likely happen under such a scenario would be that the spending addicts would make a few twists and tweaks to the budget and turn around and claim they’d fixed the problem. Then those who disagreed would run back to the courts again.

Ultimately it would all end up as just one more contentious national debate with confused voters supporting one side or the other based on which side the preferred to believe.

Also, and this is another huge potential problem with a balanced budget amendment, it would open the door to continual calls for tax increases that would allegedly be needed to help balance budgets. It is unlikely that former President Ronald Reagan could have secured passage of his tax cuts in the early 1980s if the Constitution required a federal balanced budget. The same can be said of President John F. Kennedy’s tax cut of the early 1960s.

California, Italy and Spain all have constitutions that require balanced budgets. That fact should be enough to demonstrate that a balanced budget amendment isn’t likely to accomplish what its backers would hope.

Think of the classic Parker Brothers’ table game “Monopoly.” Those who wrote the rules to the game didn’t feel it was necessary to say that grabbing extra money from the bank was against the rules. Anyone with common sense would know that doing such a thing would be cheating. Few would think it necessary to write such an obvious prohibition in the rules. Nonetheless, irresponsible rascals could sneak money from the bank and claim that “technically” they had not violated a written rule of the game.

A balanced budget amendment would be like writing a new rule for “Monopoly” that said players cannot take money out of the bank unless the rules of the game specified that the money was due them. But as soon as the new rule was in force the rascals could tip over the bank and take money off the tabletop. “There is no written rule against taking money off the tabletop,” they would point out, so technically I didn’t violate any rules.”

The point is that once someone is determined to violate the rules of common sense, no one can control them by writing new rules or amending the Constitution. They’ll figure out a way around the rules no matter what, and sadly with clever politicians, their defense of doing so would probably resonate with many.

Our national debt problem wasn’t caused by the Constitution; it was caused by the nature of those who have been in power in Washington D.C. Like it or not, those politicians were elected by the nation’s voters; of which too many continue to be deaf, dumb and blind to the economic peril they’ve unwittingly supported with their votes.

History shows that often it takes a catastrophe to reveal truths that people should have recognized all along. Sometimes only pain and loss can force human beings to read the clear handwriting on the wall.

Those who advocate for a balanced budget amendment are to be commended for their good intentions. But the medicine they’re prescribing won’t cure a patient when the patient can get away with just pretending to swallow it.