Dopiest Constitutional Amendment of All Time?
Today, all 47 Senate Republicans introduced a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. Full text available here. Presumably, this is the amendment that Republicans plan to demand as their price for increasing the federal debt limit. Of course, simply refusing the raise the debt limit would balance the budget overnight -- the nation would default on its debt and we would be plunged into the worst fiscal crisis in history, but the budget would be balanced. I have previously explained the idiocy of right wing advocates of debt default (here and here) and the idiocy of a balanced budget amendment (here and here). However, the new Republican balanced budget proposal is especially dimwitted. Let me focus on just one provision, Section 2:
Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by roll call vote.
This is really mind boggling in its insanity. It appears to say that outlays in fiscal year 2012, which begins on October 1, 2011, may not exceed 18 percent of GDP in calendar year 2010, since that is the last full calendar year before the beginning of the next fiscal year. I assume that is so that members of Congress will have a guide for the coming year's appropriations. Right at the moment, we think GDP was $14,657.8 billion in 2010, so that means that outays in FY2012 could not be more than $2,638.4 billion. But GDP generally rises over time. The CBO expects that calendar year 2012 GDP will be $15,858 billion. Assuming that Congress was somehow or other able to meet its spending target of $2,638.4 billion, that would equal just 16.6 percent of calendar 2012 GDP. The same thing would happen year after year, forcing down spending as a share of GDP under the guise of balancing the budget.
I won't repeat all of my previous criticisms of the balanced budget amendment that can be found in the links. But let me discuss one other thing. The gross domestic product is not a concept defined in law and is revised constantly; from time to time, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revises the GDP data all the way back to 1929. And of course, the 18 percent figure is totally arbitrary; the proposal effectively assumes that all federal outlays consist of funds that are appropriated annually, rather than consisting primarily of mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt. Even if Congress was willing to cut mandatory spending, it is practically impossible to do so quickly unless it is willing to reduce the monthly checks going to current retirees and other actions difficult to contemplate.
In short, this is quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin. Every senator cosponsoring this POS should be ashamed of themselves.
The point I was trying to make by calling this amendment stupid was mainly about the incredibly slipshod and amateurish way it was drafted. As I have explained previously, I think a BBA is a really bad idea, but in principle it is not necessarily a stupid idea. If Senate Republicans had bothered to ask people who know something about such things they could have drafted an amendment that put in place budgetary procedures that might possibly have improved our nation's fiscal situation. But they didn't do that; they threw together some slapdash POS that was designed solely for the purpose of appealing to ignorant Tea Party types. At least that's what I think happened. What's really worrisome is that the senators are serious about this idiotic amendment, really believe it's a good idea, and will work hard to get it enacted. That's how we ended up with Prohibition.
Good comments from Ezra Klein and Jonathan Bernstein. I am reminded that I previously posted a pretty good list of academic articles on the subject of a BBA a while back. A friend has called my attention to this really good Robert Bork article about amending the Constitution from back in the days when he wasn't pandering to right wing nuts. Dave Weigel interviews Sen. Rand Paul and he endorses the idea of balancing the budget through debt default.