Republicans were unfazed by the deficit impact of their $1.5 trillion tax cut when they passed it. Now they are trying to make deficits unconstitutional.
The House is scheduled to vote on a balanced budget amendment Thursday. Though several states require their legislatures to pass a balanced budget every year, the federal government does not have the same requirement. In fact, many economists argue it’s necessary for the federal government to go into debt for the greater good of the economy. Nevertheless, balanced budget amendments are something of a white whale on the right. And many conservatives believe it is the only way to actually enact spending cuts.
There’s no question the United States is in a lot of debt, but Democrats are quick to point out the irony of Republicans pushing a balanced budget amendment now: On Monday, the Congressional Budget Office — the independent official body that measures the impact of legislation — reported that deficit spending will increase by $11.7 trillion over the next 10 years, $1.58 trillion of which is because of the Republican tax cuts and the omnibus spending bill.
For decades, Republicans have campaigned on cutting federal spending and reducing the national debt. And while there’s an ongoing debate among economists over how big an actual threat the deficit is, Republicans, now in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, have done just the opposite.
The bill the House plans to vote on this Thursday would be one of the first steps in amending the US Constitution to bar the government from spending more than it brings in in federal revenue. Changing the Constitution requires approval from two-thirds of the House and Senate and then it must be passed by three-fourth of state legislatures. Republicans currently hold 32 of 50 state legislatures.
This is all very unlikely to happen. But Republicans are pushing it anyway. It reveals a deeply unpopular partisan agenda to make deep cuts to everything from food stamps to health care.
The balanced budget amendment has had many lives
Both Republicans and Democrats have used the idea of a balanced budget amendment as a political tool for a long time.
The movement really started in the late 1970s, when Republicans brought up a balanced budget amendment to rein in spending under Jimmy Carter’s administration. Over time, its popularity has grown and waned on both sides of the aisle. Even California Gov. Jerry Brown, who was running against Carter for the Democratic nomination, supported it at the time. He’s since had a change of heart.
There was another push for a balanced budget amendment after Ronald Reagan-era tax cuts ballooned the deficit. Activist groups like the National Taxpayers Union began to push for a constitutional convention on the balanced budget amendment to achieve this goal. These groups have continued to fight for the cause. But the amendment has failed every time — in 1982, and again in 1986, and in 1995, and so on. The last time Congress voted on a balanced budget amendment was in 2011.
Now, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) gets a vote on a version of this amendment. The amendment would ban deficit spending, require that spending not exceed 20 percent of gross domestic product, and require a majority to increase taxes and three-fifths majorities to raise the debt limit.
The basic idea is that the government won’t rein in its spending (or raise taxes) on its own, and only a constitutional amendment can force Congress to do it.
But as Slate’s Jim Newell points out, even Goodlatte’s bill gives Congress an out:
Just after requiring that “total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that year,” we get a provision allowing Congress to override that “unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.”
In other words, lawmakers can add a waiver for any extra spending they want to — something that would likely happen given the nature and history of spending negotiations. These kinds of laws are often easily circumvented, like in 2011, when the Obama-era impasse over deficit reduction ultimately resulted in the 2013 sequester. Lawmakers made sure to raise the budget caps every year after that.
This is Republican budget theater
While fighting to pass tax cuts, Republicans steered clear of talking about the deficit. Many rejected reports from the CBO and offered rosy economic growth projections instead. They even passed a waiver to ensure the tax bill wouldn’t automatically trigger a sequestration across some major mandatory spending programs, like Medicare, federal student loans, and agriculture subsidies under the 2010 deficit management pay-as-you-go law.
But almost immediately after the tax bill passed and the sequester was averted, House Republicans seemed to remember their longstanding concerns about the national debt and began eying ways to trim government spending, targeting everything from food stamps and Medicaid to Social Security and Medicare.
The CBO says the national debt will likely be equal to the size of the GDP in 10 years, and if Congress chooses to extend Republican tax policies, those deficits will only grow larger. So far, under a Republican-led Congress, the deficit is expected to grow to $804 billion this fiscal year, which ends on September 30 — about $665 billion more than in 2017.
And so Republicans who supported the tax cuts and many who supported the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that will keep the government open through September 30 and fund the military at historic levels are now behind an initiative to make deficits illegal.
Welcome to the latest development of what has been a year of Republican budget theater. Even conservatives, who have long railed against deficit spending (but who mostly voted for the tax bill) are calling this vote on the balanced budget amendment insincere.
“There is no one on Capitol Hill, and certainly no one on Main Street, that will take this vote seriously,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told Politico.
As a messaging bill, this vote reveals an unpopular part of the Republican agenda
There’s no question that the balanced budget amendment is a messaging bill, giving Republicans the chance to go home to their constituents and say that they voted in favor of fiscal responsibility.
But as such, it highlights the part of the Republican agenda that’s unpopular. To balance a budget, you can do one of two things: raise taxes or cut spending. Republicans cut taxes last year, and their ideas to cut spending (reforming entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security) are deeply unpopular.
In fact, when Republicans attempted sweeping Medicaid cuts earlier this year — a proposal to block-grant Medicaid that would ultimately cut more than $700 billion from the program over the next 10 years — it proved so unpopular that it was one of the leading reasons the Obamacare repeal effort tanked altogether.
Medicare and Social Security continue to stand alongside Medicaid as some of the most popular federal spending programs. Earlier this year, only 12 percent of Americans said they wanted Congress to decrease Medicaid spending, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A Pew study found only 10 percent of Republican-leaning Americans wanted to reduce funding for Social Security, and 15 percent wanted to decrease spending on Medicare.
And Democrats are quick to point this out.
“Their real goal is to end Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as we know it,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Correction: This article previously stated a constitutional amendment has to be approved by two-thirds of state legislatures. It has to be approved by three-fourths. We regret the error.