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In October 1993, the leading opponent of the Balance Budget Amendment (BBA), Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), issued a challenge to his colleagues that no one in Congress has ever met.  In a Washington Post op-ed piece, he demanded to know why Congress would balance the federal budget just because a constitutional amendment required it:

“Saying it will not make it happen, even if it is the Constitution that says it…. The bottom line is courage.  I do not see how a constitutional amendment will give us politicians any more spine than we now have.”

Senator Byrd was arguing that you cannot legislate political courage, but is this really true?  The ineffectiveness of the national debt ceiling certainly suggests that it is true, as do similar statutory failures like the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law.  The last-minute budget compromises that typically end these political fights, however, provide a better answer to Senator Byrd’s challenge: instead of trying to legislate political courage, we need to find better ways of legislating political fear.

Suppose you are on a plane, and the flight attendant hands you a parachute with instructions to jump because the plane is flying into a dangerous storm.  Would you have the “courage” to jump?  Probably not – even if you believed the plane was in danger.  Now suppose the entire crew tells you that the plane is going to crash, and they proceed to jump themselves.  Chances are you would quickly summon the “courage” to follow them, regardless of any misgivings.

Jumping from a plane in these circumstances would doubtless show courage, but it would not be courage that motivated you to jump.  Rather it would be the fear of an unacceptable alternative.  Similarly, Congress will have the political “courage” to balance the budget only when they fear something greater than the political backlash they now dread from cutting spending or raising revenue with higher taxes.

How do you legislative political fear?  I will offer concrete answers to this question in later posts, but for the moment let us start with the premise that Congress will only make the hard choices needed to balance the federal budget when a penalty exists that makes it more painful to Congress not to balance the budget.

This is what House Republicans were trying to accomplish in April with their hold-up of funding for the remainder of 2011, and what they are trying to achieve now with the debt ceiling.  The problem with forcing hard choices by refusing to raise the debt ceiling or pass annual spending bills is that these actions, if implemented, would penalize the country — not Congress — with fiscal chaos or government shutdowns.  Instead of harming the country as a whole, any constitutional penalty for deficit spending should be aimed at Congress, which after all is the institution responsible for both taxing and spending.

Of course, the President has an important role to play in proposing an annual budget, but no constitutional amendment is needed to hold the President accountable for this role in the budget process.  Congress has all the constitutional authority required to pass a statute compelling the President to propose a balanced budget and/or spending less than 18% percentage of GDP.  Indeed, the current version of the BBA contains such a requirement, but its supporters cannot explain why a superfluous provision like this is needed.

 Congress, on the other hand, will only act if there is constitutional penalty for failing to act.  One would like to think that the Constitution already provides such a penalty by giving voters to ability to vote out profligate legislators.  Experience has shown, however, that voters cannot effectively pressure Congress to limit spending, regardless of their support for a balanced budget in the abstract.

 Fortunately, the Framers did not simply rely on elections to rein in our politicians.  They also created a system of limited enumerated powers that would be exercised in a separation of powers framework designed to have our branches of government keep each other in check. To rein in deficit spending we need an institutional penalty directed at Congress that invokes and strengthens this framework.  What an institutional penalty of this nature might look like will be the subject of the next post.

 Copyright © 2011 Anthony W. Hawks. All rights reserved.

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