Akron Beacon Journal: Congress should just govern

First Posted: 8/4/2011

Look carefully at the proposed resolution to the impasse over raising the debt ceiling, and you will find much testimony to the inability of Congress to do its job. Lawmakers already have the tools to deal with the budget deficit and the mounting national debt. What House (and Senate) Republicans could not do is bring themselves to compromise, or, rather, to govern effectively.Oh, sure, there is give and take in the deal. For all of his slips and stumbles. President Obama did signal his willingness to compromise in a substantial way. Yet, in the end, the agreement contains familiar gimmicks and convolutions, all indicating that those responsible for managing the budget haven't achieved much.Note the use of what soon will become the Gang of 12, one more bipartisan panel. Three already have outlined a balanced approach to deficit reductions, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Count the multiple provisions stating to the effect: If lawmakers don't act, then this will happen.Even the tired and misguided idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget makes an appearance. A second increase in the debt ceiling would take place only if Congress approves further recommendations for reducing spending or if it approves a balanced budget amendment.The frustration is understandable, Congress apparently in need of a powerful kick to move forward. Still, the amendment remains flawed, starting with the adjustments required, including the use of operating and capital budgets, as in states. Most troubling would be the harm inflicted in a recession, the federal government no longer with the flexibility to respond quickly to bolster the economy through such items as Medicaid and unemployment compensation.A recession results in lower revenues and higher spending. Add a balanced budget requirement, and the country would face closing the immediate gap, aggravating and prolonging the recession. In time, the budget problems actually would be worse due to the diminished economic performance.Imagine, too, the additional unfunded mandates that likely would flow to states and local governments. Bet on legal fights over the meaning of balanced, federal judges then appearing on stage, at risk of further politicizing their role.What must be stressed, again, is that Congress already has the tools to achieve fiscal discipline. More, such discipline doesn't require a balanced budget. It involves managing well the amount of debt, responding effectively in a strong and weak economy.In the 1990s, Congress and the White House, Republicans and Democrats worked together, more and less, to reach a balanced budget in good times. There is no mystery about what is driving the current deficit, for the short term and the long term: the excessive Bush tax cuts and climbing health-care costs. Deal with these items, as the temporary stimulus spending expires, and Congress will address the larger problem -- without the need of a balanced budget amendment.

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