The Balanced-Budget Amendment Is Deeply Stupid

And dumb-messaging-vote season in Congress is even dumber than usual.

Paul Ryan.
Paul Ryan. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

When Congress returns from its two-week recess on Monday, it won’t have a whole lot to … do. Most of the meaningful legislation that was going to get done before the midterms was buried in the 2,232-page omnibus that passed a couple of weeks ago. There will still be some work over the summer—a farm bill, for example, that’s already a predictably hot mess over proposed cuts to food stamps. But otherwise, the 115th Congress is just about ready to spend the little remaining time it’s not on recess doing the important work of voting on messaging bills and pretending they matter in any way.

And what better way to kick off messaging season than voting on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution?

The House has teed up a vote next week on such an amendment, introduced last year by Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Last year, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, a vote on the measure in exchange for Walker’s support for the budget resolution that set up tax reform. (Unrelated historical note: The House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative caucus, was formed because far-right legislators grew tired of the Republican Study Committee’s habit of folding in exchange for agreements to hold useless messaging votes.)

The amendment that will be considered is the less severe of the two that Goodlatte has introduced. Instead of requiring a three-fifths supermajority to raise taxes, as the unconsidered amendment does, the one on which they’ll vote only requires a majority. The amendment would nevertheless require that spending not exceed revenues in any given fiscal year, that spending not exceed 20 percent of gross domestic product, and that three-fifths majorities would be required to raise the debt limit.

All in all, a great way to collapse an economy through the unimpeachable logic of, “If families have to tighten their belts when things are tough, so too should the federal government.”

The Treasury Department will need to borrow about 1 trillion bucks each of the next few fiscal years—in good economic times. Deficits during the next recession are going to be hilarious, and the austerity required to bring them into balance during recession would do the trick of landing the country in a depression. Even though the amendment wouldn’t go into effect until five years after its ratification, that’s still a dangerously quick wind-down. On the plus side, that five-year waiting period would give us plenty of time to reserve our spots in a nationwide bread line.

The only good thing about this amendment is its escape clause to prevent any of it from happening. Just after requiring that “total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that year,” we get a provision allowing Congress to override that “unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.” A waiver for whatever excess spending they feel like would be linked to every spending bill, after Democrats and Republicans fail to agree on the appropriate mix of spending cuts and tax increases to lower the deficit.

But what am I even doing here, giving this messaging bill a close read and gaming out how it would work? This thing isn’t getting two-thirds support in the House, it’s not doing anything in the Senate, and three-quarters of states, which happen to enjoy the federal government’s unlimited printing press given the restraints of their own balanced-budget requirements, would never ratify it. Slapping this amendment onto the Constitution is not the practical goal here.

The goal of the vote this week is to allow Republicans running for office, when confronted by constituents about their remarkable ability to create boom-time trillion-dollar deficits, to say, “I voted for a balanced-budget amendment.”

Consider Pennsylvania Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican running for the Senate who voted for both Trump’s tax cuts and the omnibus spending bill, who delighted the Keystone State on Friday morning with a column touting his support for the balanced-budget amendment. (The best part of the column is certainly the stock-art graphic showing a calculator that says “BUDGET.”) It includes not one but two formulations of how the federal government should manage its accounting like a family does.

Only seven more months until Election Day.