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Editorial: Is the GOP’s balanced budget amendment cynical, hypocritical or both?

Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)
(Astrid Riecken / TNS)

As House Republicans prepare to vote this week on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget, it’s hard to know what adjective to apply: Cynical? Ironic? Hypocritical? Or all of the above?

Let’s dispense with the easy part first. The federal budget ought to be balanced whenever the economy is healthy. Otherwise, the cost of the services delivered to the current generation of Americans will be borne by future generations. That’s not just fiscally irresponsible, it’s immoral.

But lawmakers don’t have to amend the Constitution to force themselves to match federal spending to revenues. They have multiple opportunities each year to rein in the red ink. Instead, Republicans have taken every one of those opportunities to make the deficit worse, whether by passing a wholly unwarranted and enormously expensive tax cut or demanding budget-busting increases in spending on defense and homeland security (increases that Democrats were more than happy to support, as long as their favorite domestic programs were similarly blessed).

This party-like-it’s-1999 behavior is projected to pile up $2.7 trillion more in debt over the coming decade than congressional budget analysts had expected a year ago. And it has boosted the annual deficit to levels unheard of in times of peace and economic growth. It made sense for Washington to run large budget deficits in the wake of the deep recession in 2007-08. It makes no sense to run bigger ones now, after eight consecutive years of economic growth.

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Republicans were fierce advocates of austerity during the Obama administration. Where did those principles go? Oh, right.

To paper over the GOP’s sudden change of priorities and cling to a phony mantle of fiscal responsibility, Republican leaders in the House plan to suspend the rules and bring a balanced budget amendment straight to the floor on Thursday. It’s a “Stop me before I kill again” resolution — a cry for help, as it were, from lawmakers who can’t resist handing out tax cuts (whose benefits will flow mainly to corporations and the well-off) and budget increases regardless of how far they stray from the bottom line.

Washington clearly is in dire need of more fiscal responsibility, but House Republicans seem to believe that it’s someone else’s job to provide it.

Yet it’s a transparently cynical move. There’s been little Democratic support for such resolutions in the past, so this year’s model has a snowflake’s chance in hell of drawing the 2/3 majorities in each chamber required for an amendment to be sent to the states for ratification. The point for Republicans isn’t actually to start the process of changing the Constitution, it’s to give GOP House members a chance to tell their constituents: “Look, I voted for a balanced budget amendment, so I’m not fiscally irresponsible after all. Never mind my recent support for huge spending increases and big tax cuts that you weren’t asking for and didn’t really need.”

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Therein lies the irony. Or the hypocrisy. Your choice.

After they took over the chamber in 2011, House Republicans at least went through the motions of pursuing a balanced budget. They laid out a series of 10-year plans to slow spending, not just on domestic programs but also on entitlements such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps. They were lousy plans overall, but at least they were serious.

The proposed constitutional amendment, by contrast, is a lousy plan that’s not serious.

For starters, it’s too rigid. The requirement to balance the budget would be automatically waived only during wartime. In any other year, the amendment would require a three-fifths vote by Congress to run a deficit — a requirement that polarized lawmakers could have trouble meeting during a recession, forcing them to slash spending or raise taxes when tax revenue plunges and the demands on the safety net surge. That’s a risk not worth taking.

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What’s worse, it would require a three-fifths vote by Congress to raise the federal debt limit. An ill-understood statutory restriction, the debt limit doesn’t actually stop Congress from running up debts. It merely stops the Treasury from borrowing the money needed to pay federal creditors, pensioners, investors and others to whom Uncle Sam owes money. Failing to raise the debt ceiling would be self-defeating because it would push the U.S. into a deeper fiscal hole — credit ratings agencies would downgrade U.S. debt, forcing the Treasury to fritter away more of the budget on interest payments.

Washington clearly is in dire need of more fiscal responsibility, but House Republicans seem to believe that it’s someone else’s job to provide it. Voters should accommodate them by handing the keys to the Treasury to a different set of representatives.

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