By Anthony W. Hawks
With today’s House vote passing the Republican-sponsored “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill (H.R. 2560), the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) is back in the news. Unfortunately, supporters and opponents alike continue to mischaracterize what the BBA would actually accomplish if it were ever adopted.
A perfect example is the first sentence in this July 14th editorial from the Washington Post:
“Amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget is a bad idea that never dies.”
Of course it is a bad idea – at least if this means requiring a balanced budget all the time. The BBA, however, does not require a balanced budget all the time and, more importantly, does not enforce a balanced budget at any time, although you would not know this from the debate so far.
If the BBA did require a balanced budget, then the Washington Post would indeed be right that it would “deprive policymakers of the flexibility they need to address national security and economic emergencies.” The need for such flexibility, however is precisely why the BBA has multiple provisions for waiving the so-called “requirement” of a balanced budget (as previously noted here).
Thus, Congress can waive it anytime for any reason with a 2/3rd or 3/5th super-majority vote. Or Congress can waive it with an absolute or simple majority any time a formal declaration of war is in effect. Or, finally, Congress can waive it with just a simple majority any time an “imminent and serious military threat” is declared by an absolute or 3/5th majority. (The voting thresholds vary according to each proposed version of the BBA version. The “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill endorses three such versions: H.J. R. 1 , H.J.R. 56, and S.J.R. 10).
In other words, the BBA operates just like the national debt ceiling if a “military threat” is declared, which of course is currently the case with the 9/11 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” Resolution enacted in September 2001. The debt ceiling is only a “ceiling” until Congress raises it by simple majority; and the BBA only “requires” a balanced budget until Congress waives it, also by simple majority.
BBA supporters will argue that the various super-majority voting requirements noted above will be meaningful, but they would only take effect if Congress first rescinded the 9/11 Resolution, which is not likely to happen anytime soon, particularly since the same conservative politicians promoting the BBA are among the staunchest supporters of the global war on terror.
The irony here is that BBA supporters keep insisting on a floor vote on the BBA as a condition of raising the debt ceiling. One can only wonder what their Tea Party supporters would say if they understood that the BBA is just a constitutional version of the statutory debt ceiling, and just as ineffective.
Like the debt ceiling that we are now debating, the “debt ceiling” embodied in the BBA will be “raised” (i.e. waived) every time we are confronted with the same specter of fiscal Armageddon that we now face on August 2 (or whenever President Obama refuses to make our debt service obligations the highest payment priority). These debt ceiling struggles may result in periodic compromises that make modest cuts in annual deficits, but they will not result in actual surpluses that reduce the national debt, which of course will keep increasing each time the national debt ceiling is raised.
If we are going to go down this road with the BBA, then we should ask the same question that is now being raised in the current debt ceiling debate: What should, could, or must the President do constitutionally if the debt ceiling is not raised, or if a future BBA “requirement” were not waived. This issue will be addressed in the next post.
Copyright © 2011 Anthony W. Hawks. All rights reserved.