Steve Chapman

_The experience of states does not inspire confidence in a balanced-budget rule. One common trick, says economist Josh Rauh of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, is to underfund public pension funds by inflating expected returns. By his count, the underfunding for all 50 state governments totals $3 trillion.

Nor would the amendment curb the power of Washington. If it becomes harder for Congress to tax and spend, rest assured, advocates of big government will find other ways to get what they want.

Instead of passing laws to spend money for some purpose, they will pass laws forcing businesses, nonprofits, states or local governments to spend money for that purpose. The cost will be off the federal books, but it will still be there.

Even the strongest requirement is only as good as its enforcement. And there is no good way to enforce a balanced-budget rule. If Congress and the president may choose to toss it overboard every year, who's gonna stop them?

Probably not federal judges, who generally flee from matters that are the responsibility of the elected branches -- which spending and taxing definitely are. If Congress and the president run a deficit in defiance of a constitutional command, this is what the judicial branch is likely to do: nothing.

Sounds terrible, but the alternative would be worse. Does anyone want federal courts ordering specific spending cuts or tax increases -- in other words, usurping the primary functions of the elected branches? That's what judicial enforcement of a balanced-budget amendment would mean.

A balanced budget would be a good thing, so it's tempting to think a balanced-budget amendment would be a good thing. But it wouldn't be -- any more than it would be a good thing to pass a constitutional amendment requiring strong bones and healthy teeth. It wouldn't succeed, and it would distract from what we need to do to reach the goal.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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