Our guest blogger is Michael Linden, director of Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Here’s a simple question for the 235 House Republicans who voted for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, and who also plan on supporting an amendment to the U.S. constitution that would mandate balanced budgets when it comes up for a vote this week: Why did you support a budget plan that you also think should be considered unconstitutional?
This is a serious question. Last April, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a budget that made a lot of dramatic changes. It slashed Medicaid, ended Medicare as we know it, gutted public investments in education, transportation and science research, cut huge holes in the safety net, and dramatically cut taxes for rich people, while raising them for everyone else. But there’s one thing it didn’t do. It did not balance the budget — not for nearly 30 years anyway.
And yet, those same House Republicans are now poised to vote for a constitutional amendment that would require the budget to be fully balanced as soon as 2018. If they get their way and the constitution is changed, the Ryan budget plan — the same one that they supported just months ago — would produce more than 20 years of budget deficits, each and every one in violation of the highest law in the land.
Of course, this push to change the constitution is just the latest twist on an old idea. Back in the 1990s, congressional Republicans also thought that the only way to get to a balanced budget was by constitutional fiat. That belief proved false, as Congress balanced the budget just fine by 1998 without having to change the constitution. But as with so many other right-wing economic ideas that should have perished long ago from exposure to facts, this one just won’t die.
A balanced budget amendment might sound good in a press release, but it’s not a serious budget proposal. You can’t fix the country’s fiscal problems by simply deeming them to be “unconstitutional.” You have to actually change the tax code so that it raises more revenue. You have to identify specific programs and services and benefits that will be cut to reduce spending. And you have to implement policies that will directly address underlying economic weaknesses like extremely high unemployment, a struggling middle class, and increasing income inequality. Passing a balanced budget amendment accomplishes precisely none of those goals (and, in fact, makes accomplishing them even harder).
But this week’s debate over a balanced budget amendment isn’t really about fiscal policy. It’s about scoring political points. Otherwise, how can anyone who voted for the Ryan budget plan possibly vote for a bill that would make their preferred budget path unconstitutional?