Dopiest Constitutional Amendment of All Time?

Today, all 47 Senate Republicans introduced a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget. Full text available here. Presumably, this is the amendment that Republicans plan to demand as their price for increasing the federal debt limit. Of course, simply refusing the raise the debt limit would balance the budget overnight — the nation would default on its debt and we would be plunged into the worst fiscal crisis in history, but the budget would be balanced. I have previously explained the idiocy of right wing advocates of debt default (here and here) and the idiocy of a balanced budget amendment (here and here). However, the new Republican balanced budget proposal is especially dimwitted. Let me focus on just one provision, Section 2:

Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by roll call vote.

This is really mind boggling in its insanity. It appears to say that outlays in fiscal year 2012, which begins on October 1, 2011, may not exceed 18 percent of GDP in calendar year 2010, since that is the last full calendar year before the beginning of the next fiscal year. I assume that is so that members of Congress will have a guide for the coming year’s appropriations. Right at the moment, we think GDP was $14,657.8 billion in 2010, so that means that outays in FY2012 could not be more than $2,638.4 billion. But GDP generally rises over time. The CBO expects that calendar year 2012 GDP will be $15,858 billion. Assuming that Congress was somehow or other able to meet its spending target of $2,638.4 billion, that would equal just 16.6 percent of calendar 2012 GDP. The same thing would happen year after year, forcing down spending as a share of GDP under the guise of balancing the budget.

I won’t repeat all of my previous criticisms of the balanced budget amendment that can be found in the links. But let me discuss one other thing. The gross domestic product is not a concept defined in law and is revised constantly; from time to time, the Bureau of Economic Analysis revises the GDP data all the way back to 1929. And of course, the 18 percent figure is totally arbitrary; the proposal effectively assumes that all federal outlays consist of funds that are appropriated annually, rather than consisting primarily of mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt. Even if Congress was willing to cut mandatory spending, it is practically impossible to do so quickly unless it is willing to reduce the monthly checks going to current retirees and other actions difficult to contemplate.

In short, this is quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin. Every senator cosponsoring this POS should be ashamed of themselves.

About Bruce Bartlett 76 Articles

Affiliation: Forbes

Bruce Bartlett is a columnist for Forbes.com, the online side of Forbes, the nation’s premier financial magazine.

He served for many years in prominent governmental positions including executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Deputy Assistant Secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush Administration, and as a senior policy analyst in the White House for Ronald Reagan.

Bruce is the author of seven books, including the New York Times best-selling Impostor: How George W. Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and thousands of articles in national publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Fortune and many others. He appears frequently on CNN, CNBC, C-SPAN and Fox News, and has been a guest on both the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

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