WASHINGTON — Here’s a three-step formula to bring howls of ridicule from fiscal-deficit hawks:
Pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut.
Pass a $1.3 trillion spending bill.
Vote on a bill calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.
But that’s just what the House of Representatives did, voting 233-184 last week on a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, falling well short of the two-thirds majority needed to advance the measure.
Even in the House, plenty of members believed the vote was for show.
“I think the American people can see through this,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who voted against the spending bill but for the tax cuts. “The time to have real political courage and do the right thing was four weeks ago. That’s when we needed to control spending.”
Deficit hawks echoed Jordan’s criticism.
“This is what happens when you go on a bender and say, ‘Never again; I’m not going to touch a drop,’” said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit focused on fiscal responsibility. “I have ceased to take these things seriously, and this one was just particularly bizarre.”
“It’s a political stunt,” said Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, who called the vote “the epitome of hypocrisy.”
To hear watchdogs talk, the move is ludicrous: There’s no way to slash taxes and increase spending, and then expect to balance the budget. The math doesn’t work.
But it’s the continuation of what has been a long-running effort. The House had last voted for such an amendment in 2011, but it fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to the states for ratification. A similar effort stalled in the Senate in 1995.
Despite last week’s failure to pass the amendment, there’s clearly an appetite for it.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he supports the idea: “If you don’t have the balanced-budget discipline, it’s very hard to see how the federal budget problems are able to be solved.”
Four Ohioans — Republican Reps. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, Michael Turner of Dayton, Bob Latta of Bowling Green and Steve Stivers of Upper Arlington — co-sponsored the amendment that the House voted on. Stivers applauded the House’s decision to take it up, saying: “It is clear that this legislation is needed now more than ever.”
“The reason to hold the vote is to see who’s ‘yes’ and who’s ‘no,’” he said. “We need to know who to work on if we’re going to get to two-thirds.”
But Stivers also supported both the tax bill and the spending bill. He said he believes the former will make the economy grow and bring more revenue into federal coffers. He said he backed the spending bill because of its increase in defense spending.
“The military is under-resourced like no time since the Vietnam War,” Stivers said.
Despite that, he still supports the amendment, saying it’s the only way to ensure the budget is balanced.
“We have to make a balanced budget something required, so it happens,” he said.
That argument provoked scoffs from Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio at a National Press Club event last week.
“It’s sort of interesting that because the majority party blew a hole in the budget, they’ve gotta go back and say, ‘Let’s do a Balanced Budget constitutional amendment so we don’t do bad things anymore,’” Brown said. “Really? ‘Stop us from doing this. We won’t stop ourselves.’”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who launched his 2016 presidential campaign by pushing for a Balanced Budget Amendment, shared that skepticism.
“It’s better to do it than not do it, but what’s the point? It’s not going to pass,” he said. “I just hope that it’s based on sincerity and not an attempt to cover your tracks.”
Kasich said he still supports the idea of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. He said that when he launched “Balanced Budget Forever” in December 2014, the idea was to spur states to call for the amendment.
“We felt as we got closer and closer to that, that Congress might see fit to act on their own,” he said, adding that he’d be “thrilled” if Congress passed the amendment, but “I don’t believe it’s going to happen.”
“The real situation is you can’t be spending all of this money,” Kasich said. “It leaves you questioning, ‘Why are they passing this if they just passed this inflated spending bill along with very little savings in tax reform? What is the point of this?’”
Still, he said, “it’s better to do it and have the discussion than do nothing.”
But deficit hawks say it would be better to make a consistent commitment to fiscal responsibility, such as a statutory requirement to reduce expenditures or an examination of the drivers of the deficit and debt — entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. Unless those are cut, the only way to balance the budget would be through tax increases, which Romina Boccia of the conservative Heritage Foundation said “there’s no appetite for.”
Hawks also dispute the need to have the budget balance every year. Instead, said Bixby, “what you want is debt stable relative to the size of your economy, so the debt isn’t growing faster than the economy, which is what is happening now, and which is what makes it ultimately unsustainable.”
The Peterson Institute’s Kirkegaard, meanwhile, said it would be impossible to balance the budget without effectively gutting the federal social safety net operated by the federal government, and he argued such an amendment would also make it incredibly difficult to do the stimulus spending required to keep economic downturns from becoming even worse.
“That would mean any future (economic) downturn would be more severe than necessary, and it would basically throw more people out of work,” he said. “I think it is a uniformly bad idea.”