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Balanced budgets: Common sense or science fiction?

Posted: July 23, 2013 - 11:00pm

Two weeks ago Sen. Mark Begich signed on as a cosponsor to a senate resolution that would amend the U.S. Constitution to require the federal government to balance its budget. By doing so he has stepped away from the majority of his Democratic Party colleagues in Congress. Begich calls the amendment a “common sense” stand to “improve fiscal discipline in Washington.” But like eight of the other balanced budget resolutions submitted this session, it would continue to excuse Americans from paying for the costs of our wars and military conflicts.

The balanced budget amendment was a centerpiece of the Republican Party’s “Contract with America” back in 1994. It almost became the law of the land a year later after easily passing in the GOP controlled House of Representatives. But it fell two votes shy of the two-thirds majority required in the Senate. The 35 nay votes were all Democrats.

Since then it’s been common for Republicans to introduce balanced budget resolutions in Congress. But only in 2011 did it come up for a vote. Two versions made it to the Senate floor. The GOP sponsored amendment resembled the one that almost passed in 1995. Although it failed again, this time in both chambers, it fared much better than the other senate resolution sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO).

The Udall resolution from 2011 is essentially the same one Sen. Begich is cosponsoring now. It’s not likely to gain support from any Republicans because it’s missing two significant provisions — the requirements that three-fifths of both houses of Congress approve any new taxes and any increase of the federal debt ceiling.

The one provision that’s similar to the 1995 version is how Congress would deal with the costs of declared wars or other congressionally authorized military conflicts. They’d be allowed to consider suspending compliance with the amendment.

So for the sake of argument let’s consider what would have happened had Congress passed the amendment in 1995. Provided it had been ratified by two thirds of the states, the year it would have taken effect was 2002. The hypothetical questions to ponder are, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, would Congress have voted to borrow funds to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? If not, would they have chosen to raise taxes or impose a period of budgetary austerity to pay for them?

It’s worth remembering that before then the federal government had enjoyed a few years of budget surpluses. That was the reason behind President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001. He wasn’t interested in reinstating them. And he projected budget deficits instead of proposing severe cuts in domestic programs. So even if there was a new constitutional requirement to balance the budget, it’s unlikely that the GOP-controlled Congress would have opposed the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, especially since he was riding a wave of popularity at the time.

It’s also true that in 2002 few in Congress saw the possibility that the wars would last more than a year or two. We know better now. And it’s these long wars that Thomas Jefferson believed could be avoided when, as vice president in 1798, he wrote “I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution… taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing.” And he added “I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as 10 wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion.”

What Jefferson couldn’t foresee was America growing into an empire with an endless appetite to defend its global economic interests. Nor could he have imagined an American populace acquiescing to the militarized surveillance state that we’ve become as a result of the excessive fears spawned after 9-11.

The fact is America’s military and national security budgets have more than doubled during the past decade. Yet few in Congress are willing to challenge defense and homeland security spending. Sen. Begich isn’t one of them. Until he and the majority find the courage to do so, every proposed balanced budget amendment to our Constitution resembles science fiction more than common sense.

Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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