By Anthony W. Hawks
Supporters of the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) will argue that we need a supermajority voting requirement to authorize deficit spending precisely because it will be much harder to do so than raising the debt limit under current law. But suppose the BBA had been adopted prior to 9/11. Does anyone really believe that Congress would have refused to waive the balanced budget requirement by a supermajority? In all likelihood it would have been a unanimous or near unanimous vote.
Similarly, what do you think would happen if the President were to announce that Social Security and Medicare checks have to be delayed or withheld altogether, or that funding for the troops in Afghanistan would have to cease, because the BBA’s 18% (or 20%) GDP spending cap has been breached and any further spending would unconstitutional? Either the President would openly ignore the constitutional mandate (so much for the rule of law), or more likely Congress would grant a waiver in a heartbeat.
It also matters which waiver Congress wants to invoke. In the current House and Senate versions of the BBA, there are a total of five waivers that would permit Congress to: (1) authorize deficit spending; (2) allow spending above the designated GDP threshold; (3) raise the national debt (or at least debt held by the public); (4) waive all requirements in a time of declared war; and (5) waive all requirements if there is a military conflict declared by Congress to be an “imminent and serious military threat to national security.”
The first two waivers are time limited to the current fiscal year. In other words, Congress must invoke the waiver (by a two-thirds or three-fifths vote) each fiscal year it wants to authorize deficit spending or allow spending over the GDP cap. The third waiver must be invoked (by a three-fifths vote) each time it becomes necessary to raise the debt ceiling, but Congress can invoke this waiver anytime it wishes.
The “declared war” and “military threat” waivers, however, are what expose the BBA as an illusion with no more enforcement power than the statutory debt ceiling. First, they have no sunset provision, and thus the resolutions declaring war or a military threat can remain in effect indefinitely. As a result, and as long as they are in effect, Congress can invoke any of the first three waivers (i.e., deficit spending, GDP threshold, and debt ceiling) not by some supermajority vote, but merely by a simple majority (under the “military threat” waiver or the House version of the “declared war” waiver) or by an absolute majority (under the Senate version of the “declared war” waiver).
The “Authorization for Use of Military Force” Resolution enacted in September 2001 in response to 9/11 is precisely the type of undeclared war, but “imminent and serious military threat” waiver envisioned by the new BBA. This 9/11 resolution of course was easily passed by a supermajority vote in both Houses of Congress (98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in the House). Thus, even if the BBA were now part of the Constitution, its only impact would be to require annual waivers by simple majority votes, which is exactly what Congress is already authorized to do under the Constitution.
To be sure, battles over future BBA waivers could lead to insignificant compromises over spending and taxes similar to what is likely occur in the current debt ceiling debate, but why go to the trouble of amending the Constitution to achieve what we already have? More importantly, if a constitutional amendment like the BBA is no better than a statutory limit on the national debt, then what is the solution? What exactly would an enforceable balanced budget mandate look like? The answer lies not with another plan for balancing the budget, but rather in how we can create the political will necessary to balance the budget. It is this issue that will be addressed in a future blog post.
Copyright © 2011 Anthony W. Hawks. All rights reserved.