WASHINGTON — Before he was shuttled from meeting to meeting in a wheelchair by his aides, and before he dispensed so much pork to West Virginia that seemingly everything in the state was named after him, Sen. Robert Byrd was one of 69 senators to vote for a balanced budget amendment.
The year was 1982. Byrd, who would become the oldest living senator, was alive when the first balanced budget amendment was proposed in 1932. He would vote on the idea more than a dozen times. Byrd is now dead, but if he were alive, he would in all likelihood not be surprised one bit that one of the oldest ideas in American politics is once again alive and kicking.
Earlier this month, Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, along with Republican heavyweights like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, were set to unveil yet another draft of a proposed balanced budget amendment. The event was scuttled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in order to garner a wider base of Republican support, but it's not going away. A part of the Republican platform since 1980, and proposed by Hatch 27 times, the time has perhaps never been more ripe to pass the amendment, says Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
"We're $14 trillion in national debt, and it's going up every day," Hatch said in an interview with the Deseret News earlier this year from his Salt Lake office. "Frankly, I don't think there is a downside (to a balanced-budget amendment). If we don't do something like that, we're never going to get things under control."
Many Americans have expressed support for such a measure, and it seems simple enough. It's a common refrain heard on conservative talk radio: "If my family has to balance our budget, why shouldn't the federal government?" The question is what impact such an amendment would have on the economy, and which cuts Americans are willing to live with. Because while the idea of balancing the budget may seem attractive, it will not be as simple as snipping a few billion dollars here, and a few million there. It could mean substantial cuts to Medicare or Social Security, enormous decreases in domestic expenditures, national defense or perhaps a significant tax hike.
In a February 2011 poll for the Deseret News and KSL, pollster Dan Jones & Associates asked about 500 Utahns if they would support a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, understanding it would mean substantial cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending.
Responses were divided. Twenty-seven percent said they would "strongly support" an amendment, but 31 percent said they would "strongly oppose" one. The rest were in the middle, with 14 percent of participants saying they "somewhat supported" the idea, and 19 percent expressing that they were "somewhat opposed" to balancing the federal budget. Eight percent said they didn't know.
The mixed reaction from Utahns isn't too much different from how economists feel about the issue. While most agree that the government must rein in federal spending, not all agree that a federal balanced budget amendment is the answer.
"Personally, I think in terms of government spending, it would be useful to tighten our belts sooner rather than later, and I think there is value in starting these kind of discussions now, but we just don't want to be extreme about it," said Scott Condie, professor of economics at Brigham Young University. Condie is a proponent of making substantial cuts to the federal budget — cuts that he says will be painful no matter when they are made. But he feels that requiring the federal government to balance its budget in the middle of a recession would be unwise. Because of the fragile state of the economy, Condie worries that an amendment enforced too soon could do more bad than good. "At some point government spending will have to bring government expenditure in line with tax receipts. A balanced budget would be useful for the economy in the long run, but right now it's just not feasible and not practical."
Sen. Lee disagrees. While he acknowledges that such a measure can't take place in the next two years, he says that the sooner we balance the budget, the better.
"It would have to be phased in over the course of a few years" he says. "But we've got to start the process of mandating that the shift occur now so that we're not left in a position where the shift has to be abrupt." According to Lee, federal spending on programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will soon become unsustainable, and in order to avoid sudden cuts to these programs in the future, reform is needed now. If the amendment is successful, Lee said he would look at raising the retirement age and implementing means testing for Social Security recipients, meaning the government would consider the financial situation of each applicant and make decisions on how much aid to give based on need. But Lee said he is dedicated to making sure that no one currently receiving Social Security benefits would be affected.
Brian Riedl, research fellow in federal budget policy from the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., says that most people don't realize is that if left alone, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will usurp 100 percent of the federal budget within the next few decades. Making cuts to these programs would be his number one priority in trying to balance the budget.
"If you are looking to reduce the budget deficit and rein in spending, you absolutely have to start with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," Riedl said. "It's where all the money is."
While balancing the budget is not as crucial to Riedl as simply reducing federal spending, he supports something like Lee's proposal, rather than just maintaining the status quo."Personally, I don't think modest deficits are that bad, I'm more interested in capping spending than a balanced budget amendment," Riedl said. "In a perfect world we wouldn't need a constitutional remedy for spending and deficits, but Congress has shown that they are abusing their spending powers; and in a world where spending and deficits continue to grow through the roof, something has to be done."
Calling the mounting federal debt a "clear and present danger" to the continued existence of all federal programs, Lee says both liberals and conservatives in Congress realize they have to do something. That said, there are disagreements about where to make cuts. Lee says everyone would have to make concessions, not just those who want to cut programs like Medicare and Social Security.
"Everything would have to be on the table for cuts, and I mean everything," said Lee. "But the cuts will be more severe in some places than in others." In the past, Republicans have said they would never consider touching national defense, and Democrats are much less likely to stand for cuts to federal entitlement programs. "But now, you have people in both parties who are realizing that these positions are equally untenable," Lee said.
He said people who worry that we are not spending enough on investments in areas like education, infrastructure and energy should get behind his proposal, as balancing the budget will actually open up more money for these areas.
"What we are currently spending on Medicare and Social Security in one year is several times what we spend on education and infrastructure every year, and yet that's what we'll be paying every year if we don't do something very significant to restrict the spending," he said. "This is why my call resonates with liberals and conservatives alike because whether it's defense or entitlements, right now everything is jeopardized."
Frank Caliendo, economics professor at Utah State University, couldn't agree more.
"My preference would be for Congress to bite the bullet and balance the budget as soon as possible," Caliendo said. "I would like to see the federal government set an example for U.S. families," he said. Caliendo realizes that there may be some hitches along the way to balancing the budget, but in his mind, it would be worth it.
"Obviously I would like this to be implemented as feasibly as possible, but I think we ought to be aiming for a balanced budget. If we never aim for one, we'll never get there," he said.
Economist and budget expert Isabel Sawhill from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., doesn't want to take as "significant" a step as Lee and Caliendo would recommend.
"I think a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution would be a mistake. Calling for an amendment to the Constitution instead of simply getting on with the job of cutting spending or raising revenues is the equivalent of announcing one is going to lose weight and then eating a chocolate sundae the next day," Sawhill said. "It may be politically popular but it doesn't solve the problem."
She said that the federal budget doesn't always need to be balanced, especially not on a yearly basis. In times of war, recession, or other national emergencies, the country needs the flexibility to borrow, Sawhill says, something this type of amendment would make difficult. And any amendment would have to include lots of exceptions that would be used to circumvent the original intent. "Most economists believe deficit reduction is badly needed for the medium and longer term and should be enacted now, but phased in gradually, so as not to retard a still fragile recovery" she said.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has some of the same concerns. Bennett voted for balanced budget amendments, but says that he did not recognize at the time some of the complicated issues that are hidden behind what seems like a good idea. For a balanced budget amendment to work, he says the wording of the amendment is the most important thing.
"Is this bill a Trojan Horse for a massive tax increase? Will it destroy Social Security or Medicare? What would it do to the credit of the United States? These are all questions I would ask before voting for such a measure," Bennett said. "If a balanced budget amendment were force us to default on some of our credit obligations, no one knows what the implications would be, because from Alexander Hamilton on forward, we have never defaulted."
Bennett warned that politicians and citizens alike should pay attention to the wording of any escape clauses, and on how the time frame for implication is worded. "You have to be careful, because an amendment improperly worded could spark an enormous financial disaster for the United States," he said.
Lee is confident that all these bases can be covered. In his eyes, the budget can be balanced by cutting spending, and not implementing new taxes. In fact in his original bill, any new tax increases would have to be agreed to by two-thirds of each house- not an easy task. Bennett also cautioned that Utahns should not be fooled that just because a state government, like Utah's, can balance its budget, that the federal government can also do so with ease. The federal government has many responsibilities that state governments do not have, Bennett said, and enacting such an amendment could put the federal reserve and Congress into a tough position if faced with recession.
"A balanced budget could potentially put the Federal Reserve and Congress into a so-called 'economic straight-jacket,'" he said.
But this type of restriction is exactly what Lee feels is needed in Washington right now.
Lee, who was able to oust Bennett largely because of a sense among voters that Bennett was not conservative enough, is adamant that this amendment is the right thing for our time.
"You don't want the inmates in charge of the prison," Lee said of Congress. "Congress has shown us in recent history that they cannot make difficult choices, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that it has created an unsustainable monster in programs that continue to escalate. We need a measure that will not make it easy for Congress to break the very rules that bind them."