Bruce Bartlett

With federal budget deficits rising, pressure is on once again to enact a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. On June 25, a discharge petition was initiated to force a vote in the House on H.J. Res. 22, the latest in a long line of legislative efforts to bring this about. Such an amendment has always been a bad idea. A recent Supreme Court case in Nevada shows more clearly than ever before why this is the case.

Congress has within its power the ability to enact a balanced budget any time it so chooses. And the Budget Act of 1974 provides mechanisms and procedures that make such a result relatively easy, as long as the will exists to accomplish it.

So what purpose is served by a constitutional amendment? The theory is that it would stiffen Congress' spine and encourage it to stand up to those who benefit from the government's largess.

The beneficiaries of spending or special tax breaks are well organized and deeply determined, whereas those who favor a balanced budget are disorganized and less committed. This allows special interests to get spending or tax breaks on their behalf year after year, even though a majority of voters probably opposes them. After all, the cost to any individual taxpayer of a particular tax or spending provision is trivial, whereas the benefit to those on the receiving end can be very high.

Thus, as in war, discipline and motivation by a smaller force can often overcome the superior numbers of an opposing force. In part, that is what allowed Robert E. Lee to hold a much larger Union army at bay for several years during the Civil War. So, too, in politics.

The idea is that if the constituencies favoring more spending were forced to compete against each other because the spending pie is capped by a constitutional amendment -- rather than all working together to raise overall spending -- then the forces of restrain would be strengthened, offsetting the inherent advantage of the spenders.

This is a good theory, but one that has always fallen apart on the rocks of actual practice. Congress has enacted any number of laws and rules over the years to control its own behavior in this area, such as the Gramm-Rudman law. But since such restraints require only a majority vote to implement, they need only a majority vote to abolish. Whenever push has come to shove, Congress has always given in to the spenders -- although it has often required amazing dexterity and skill to jump through the budgetary hoops. But, where there is a will, there is always a way.


Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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