In the ongoing battle in Washington over the federal budget, all 47 GOP senators are proposing a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The measure would “force policymakers to severely slash Medicare, Medicaid, and many other programs or scrap them altogether — even while opening the door to massive new tax cuts,” according to one independent policy expert.
The proposed amendment would require the federal government to maintain balanced budgets, and no longer be able to run budget deficits.
“The balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that Senate Republican leaders unveiled today is the most radical major fiscal policy proposal in decades,” Bob Greenstein, president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, says in a statement released Thursday. “It would require a balanced budget every year regardless of the state of the economy, an exceedingly unwise requirement that most economists have long counseled against because it would require the largest budget cuts or tax increases when the economy is weakest and thereby could tip faltering economies into recessions and make recessions worse.”
To be enacted, the amendment would have to be approved by two-thirds majorities in Congress and then ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.
The GOP balanced budget amendment would prevent total federal spending from exceeding about 16.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), says Greenstein, who previously was a senior official at the Agriculture Department during the Carter administration.
The last year that federal spending was 16.7 percent of GDP or lower was 1956, he notes.
“In that year, Medicare and Medicaid did not exist and millions of workers (including many low-income and minority workers) were excluded from Social Security,” Greenstein says. “Federal aid to education barely existed. Most federal environmental protection did not exist. Nor, for that matter, did most basic programs to ease poverty and hardship such as Supplemental Security Income for the elderly and disabled poor, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. More than a third of elderly Americans lived in poverty, infant mortality was far above today’s levels, and rates of child malnutrition in some areas of the country approached those of Third World nations.
“Even under President Reagan, federal expenditures averaged 22 percent of GDP — and that was before any members of the baby boom generation had retired; at a time when health care spending was a third lower as a share of GDP than it is today; and before the 9/11 terrorist attacks led policymakers to create a new category of homeland security spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led to increases in veterans’ health costs that will endure for decades,” he adds.
Meanwhile, since federal spending would fall to 16.7 percent of GDP, the amendment would create room for very big new tax cuts, Greenstein says.
“That’s because, with a balanced budget mandate, revenues could be reduced to that level as well,” he says. “Most Senate sponsors of the amendment favor making permanent all of President Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, including those for the wealthiest Americans. Those tax cuts give people with incomes of more than $1 million tax reductions that average more than $125,000 a year, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Making those tax cuts permanent could be just the start; there would be room for large new tax cuts on top of those. Some policymakers surely would propose further large tax cuts for affluent Americans and large corporations.”
“Moreover, new tax loopholes — including loopholes that Congress didn’t intend but that high-priced tax lawyers and accountants have found ways to create — would become untouchable once they appeared,” he adds. “That’s because the amendment would require a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to raise taxes. Not only would this essentially rule out any revenue contribution to deficit reduction, it also would mean that once a tax loophole opened up, it would become virtually impossible to close (because lobbyists generally could prevent a two-thirds vote in both chambers).”
A False Argument
Supporters of such a balanced-budget amendment often make the case, Greenstein notes, that American families, and most states, also must balance their budgets. That’s a false argument when it comes to the federal budget, he says.
States must balance their operating budgets, but they can borrow to finance their capital budgets — to finance roads, schools, and other projects — and most states do so. States also can build reserves during good times and draw on them in bad times without counting the drawdown from reserves as new spending that unbalances a budget, Greenstein notes.
And individual families also follow similar practices. They borrow — mortgages to buy a home or student loans to send a child to college — and they draw down savings when times are tight.
“The amendment, however, would bar such practices at the federal level,” Greenstein says. “The total federal budget — including capital investments — would have to be balanced every year, with no borrowing allowed for infrastructure or other investments that can boost future economic growth. And if the federal government ran a surplus one year, it could not draw it down the next year to help balance the budget.
“The amendment would pose many risks to the economy,” he adds. “If another financial crisis hit, such as the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s or the financial market crisis of 2008 and 2009, the federal government would be stuck. It could not mount the critical rescues that it did in those circumstances unless two-thirds of the House and the Senate approved.”
Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.