Can balanced budget amendment put an end to U.S. deficits?

Published: Friday, March 25 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Mike Lee

August Miller, Deseret News

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."

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