Jewish World Review August 15, 2011 / 15 Menachem-Av, 5771
Balanced budget amendment unbalanced idea
By Jay Ambrose
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Give me a chance to say so, and I'll shout it -- the Tea Party is one of the most fascinating and productive citizen movements of my lifetime -- but it doesn't follow that I think a balanced budget amendment would achieve anything besides giving Congress one more opportunity to disregard the Constitution.
Some Tea Party activists say the amendment is crucial, and by the way, do they also like debt ceilings? Granted, wrangling over the ceiling this year enabled Republicans to make headway in deficit reduction, but these supposed limitations on irresponsibility have generally been a charade. They are like me promising to stay within my household budget unless I buy a new unaffordable motorcycle I've already decided to buy.
But, you say, this is not just a law (or an unmeant self-promise) we are talking about. It would be an article in our sacrosanct Constitution, and that indeed should be meaningful, only it would not be.
First off, an amendment without a plethora of escape clauses would be craziness, seeing as how virtually every enterprise, family and individual in this society needs to borrow money occasionally to get around some financial bend (appliance, car, house mortgage, college) or take advantage of an opportunity. The clauses, sadly, would render the whole a joke. The meaningful would have become meaningless.
It would be like a pay-as-you-go law President Barack Obama backed saying any new budgetary expenditures would have to be offset. It included some exemptions, and the moment a chance for new spending came along -- extending unemployment payments -- he and his buddies said this was just the exemption they were looking for. Finding comparable cuts of wasteful spending would have been child's play, but oh, no, that would demonstrate a lack of compassion, we were repeatedly told by liberal pundits specializing in non sequiturs.
Escape clauses mean rule of whim, but even if no such provisions were adopted, so what? Did the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech keep Congress from curbing free speech in campaign finance laws? No, it didn't. The Constitution's "commerce clause" is primarily meant to facilitate trade between states and had nothing to do with regulation until the Supreme Court was bullied into saying otherwise
It thereby opened the door to a nanny state that aims to run your life down to the kind of light bulbs you buy and how much water is in your toilet. There's scarcely a right in the Bill of Rights on which Congress has not trampled at one time or another.
Finally, a balanced budget amendment is the wrong girl to invite to the dance. The great Milton Friedman is quoted as having once said that deficits in a trillion dollar budget would bother him a whole lot less than balance in a two trillion dollar budget.
The point is that even with balance, you can spend the country into oblivion. One draft amendment would make new taxes dependent on a two-thirds vote, which too severely handicaps Congress, though a balanced budget amendment without something like that could mean we are taxed to perdition. Of course, we currently have the worst of all worlds -- a 2012 plan that calls for a record $3.73 trillion in total spending, a $1.1 trillion deficit and ambitions as soon as the politics get right to add $1 trillion in taxes.
The right girl to invite, Friedman said, was an amendment dictating spending limits adjusted upwards only for growth in inflation and population. While that would be an improvement, we would still be faced with emergency provisions and constitutional disdain, besides which it would work only if Congress immediately restructured entitlements.
What you come down to is the real need -- electing responsible, trustworthy, honest, intelligent, Constitution-respecting believers in fiscal propriety, liberty, individual initiative, governmental restraint generally and an understanding of how good intentions too easily go astray. Without the right men and women in power, wrong deeds will be done.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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