Tim Pawlenty: Not Ready for Prime Time
In The Politico this morning, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who apparently aspires to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, has a grossly ill-informed article in which he rants about the deficit without proposing any spending cuts and insisting on still more tax cuts.
Like all Republicans these days, Pawlenty wants to have it every possible way: complain about the deficit while ignoring everything his party did to create it (Medicare Part D, two unfunded wars, TARP, earmarks galore, tax cuts up the wazoo, irresponsible regulatory and monetary policies that created the recession that created the deficit, etc.), illogically insisting that tax cuts are a necessary part of deficit reduction, and never proposing any specific spending cuts.
The only specific thing Mr. Pawlenty is capable of proposing is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. It’s hard to know where to begin in explaining why this is such an irresponsible idea, but I will try.
1. It will take forever to get an amendment enacted by Congress and approved by three-quarters of the states, if it can be done at all. Back in the 1980s, Republicans expended enormous effort to get such an amendment enacted but could never muster the two-thirds majority necessary in both houses. Does Pawlenty think it will be easier now?
2. The simplistic amendment Pawlenty proposes—the budget must be balanced except in times of war, natural disasters or other emergencies—was rejected by most Republicans in the 1980s on the grounds that it would likely force tax increases, which are by far the easiest way to bring the budget into balance quickly. Instead, they favored some sort of spending limitation amendment.
3. It’s one thing to require a balanced budget when starting from a position of balance or near-balance. It’s quite another when we are running deficits of over $1 trillion per year for the foreseeable future. Even if we were not in an economic crisis and fighting two wars and responding to a natural disaster in Haiti, a rapid cut in spending of that magnitude would unquestionably throw the economy into recession just as it did in 1937.
4. It’s doubtful that Mr. Pawlenty has any clue as to the composition of federal spending. In FY 2009 we would have had to abolish every discretionary spending program, including national defense, to balance the budget and that still wouldn’t have been enough without a penny of higher revenues, as he insists. We would have had to cut more than $300 billion out of Medicare and Social Security as well. Good luck with that.
5. Pawlenty says not a word about how a balanced budget amendment would be enforced. Perhaps he assumes that public opinion will be sufficient, but the reality is that for such an amendment to be operational and not just a meaningless expression of intent then there has to be a point in the budgetary process where the federal courts can enjoin spending or force tax increases. This is obviously a very bad idea in principle, but it’s also impractical. For example, as a legal matter we would have no way of knowing that the budget was in fact unbalanced until the fiscal year had ended, but even a federal court can’t make people give back federal funds that have already been paid out for interest on the debt, Social Security and Medicare benefits, wages and salaries, payments for goods and services etc. Thus a balanced budget amendment of the sort Pawlenty proposes is effectively unenforceable.
6. Finally, it’s pretty obvious that the exceptions Mr. Pawlenty would provide are loopholes big enough for a blind man to drive through. I can easily foresee the U.S. in a perpetual state of emergency to avoid the necessity of balancing the budget. This being the case, Mr. Pawlenty should ask himself if he really wants the Constitution of the United States to be treated in such a frivolous manner? If we pass an amendment that we know in advance is unenforceable doesn’t that debase the Constitution itself?
In conclusion, Tim Pawlenty is not ready for prime time. He may think he has found a clever way of appealing to the right wing tea party/Fox News crowd without having to propose any actual cuts in spending, but it isn’t going to work. It’s too transparently phony even for them.