Later today, the House is expected to begin debate on a balanced budget amendment, with most of the amendment’s supporters hoping that it will impose sweeping and permanent austerity upon the United States. As ThinkProgress reported, if this amendment actually succeeded in balancing the budget entirely through spending cuts, it would “throw about 15 million more people out of work, double the unemployment rate from 9 percent to approximately 18 percent, and cause the economy to shrink by about 17 percent instead of growing by an expected 2 percent.” In other words, America would almost instantly suffer consequences that rival the Great Depression.
Yet, for those of us who are still old enough to remember when conservatives feared “activist judges,” the right’s recently invigorated obsession with writing fiscal policy into the Constitution is nothing less than bizarre. As Neil Kinkopf, a former constitutional advisor to the Clinton and Obama Administration explains, the most likely way to enforce this kind of amendment would be by requiring judges to strike down budgets that aren’t balanced — placing our fiscal policy in the hands the public officials who are least suited to make such decisions:
Our independent federal judiciary is highly skilled at deciding legal questions. It is not at all competent to make decisions of a political or policy nature. Judges are not, generally speaking, trained in matters of economics or finance. They have no special competency that would recommend committing such decisions to them. . . . Finally, legislators are politically accountable for their decisions. Judges are not and should not be. Decisions regarding how to achieve a balanced budget are precisely the type of decisions that involve will and not judgment, to use Hamilton’s phrase, and so should be made by accountable officials rather than judges.
Don’t trust former Clinton and Obamaistas? How about Robert Bork, the failed Supreme Court nominee who became the centerpiece of the legal conservative movement’s persecution complex? Here’s what he had to say about balanced budget amendments:
Also troubling is the problem of enforcing such a constitutional provision. In the early stages of discussion, a lot of people, including most economists, apparently thought this was no problem: if Congress exceeded the constitutional limits on spending, someone would sue. That much is true. The result, however, would likely be hundreds, if not thousands, of lawsuits around the country, many of them on inconsistent theories and providing inconsistent results. By the time the Supreme Court straightened the whole matter out, the budget in question would be at least four years out of date and lawsuits involving the next three fiscal years would be slowly climbing toward the Supreme Court.
Bork, of course, is right to be worried about the judiciary’s unfitness to balance the budget. If the Supreme Court strikes down the 2014 budget in 2016, what happens next? Does the government have to take back the money it already spent, and if so, how? And what does this do to America’s credit rating if every bill sent to the federal government is subject to reexamination by nine judges in black robes?
But, none of this will probably bother the kind of conservatives who now dominate Congress. They were willing to push America to the brink of fiscal implosion during the debt ceiling fight earlier this year. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), a leading supporter of a balanced budget amendment, even admitted he wants America’s “house to come down” unless we agreed to his extortionist demand to rewrite the Constitution.
So conservative lawmakers have demonstrated time and time again through their actions that they don’t care one bit if their reckless tactics destroy the American economy. They have made absolutely clear, however, that they will never, ever vote to raise taxes on the rich, even though doing so is one of the least harmful ways to bring the budget closer to balance.
And that’s the real reason why conservatives in Congress would oppose the upcoming balanced budget amendment if they had any idea what it would actually entail — and it explains why the right-wing Heritage Foundation is already whining that this version of the amendment doesn’t do anything to save David Koch and Paris Hilton from paying more taxes.