Needed: A Progressive Balanced Budget Amendment

The idea of a constitutional amendment mandating that the United States balance its budget is a bad idea. But one lesson progressives ought to have learned from the current debate is that “Balanced Budget Amendment” can be the name of just about anything. For example, the current version of the “Balanced Budget Amendment” that congressional Republicans are pushing isn’t a measure to mandate a balanced budget. It’s a measure to require a supermajority to increase taxes, while allowing tax cuts by majority vote. It’s true that it also mandates a balanced budget, but you could easily drop that element and still achieve the core policy objective which is to put federal revenue on a downward ratchet path.

Under the circumstances, my view is that progressives would do well to have some kind of “Balanced Budget Amendment” placeholder that we favor. Ed Glaeser wants an amendment mandating that budgets be balanced across the business cycle. That, to me, sounds possibly unworkable. But what if you took the Statutory PAYGO idea that Democrats enact when they control congress (only to be repealed when the GOP retakes control) and turned it into a Balanced Budget Amendment.

The idea here would be that any legislative changes congress makes needs to be paid for with offsets. A measure like that would be in keeping with sound Keynesian practice. It wouldn’t imperil the federal government’s automatic stabilizers, since automatic stabilizers aren’t a legislative change. But it would prevent pro-cyclical tax cutting whenever an economic boom produces a budget surplus. What’s more, it wouldn’t require any kind of special “war exemption” to the rule. It would be perfectly legitimate for congress to enact temporary deficit spending to fight a war, but it would have to be paired with some kind of pan to pay the debt off over the longer term. Similarly, there’d be nothing stopping congress from enacting a discretionary fiscal stimulus program but, again, the debt would need to be paired with a long-term plan to pay the debt down. I think this is a pretty good idea and it lends itself to relatively good sloganeering: “The Progressive Balanced Budget Amendment forces Congress to pay for its new ideas while retaining the flexibility to respond to emergencies.”