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Commentary: GOP’s fake balanced budget amendment plan is an insult to conservatives everywhere

The U.S. must confront its enormous annual federal deficits. The reason Congress, whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats, will likely never pass a balanced budget amendment is because most members of Congress have a strong personal incentive to continue to run large deficits. (devke/Getty Images)

Congressional Republicans say they care about the ballooning national debt, but most of their attempts to stop our out-of-control federal government from sending the nation over the fiscal cliff amount to nothing more than virtue signaling.

On April 12, the Republican-led House of Representatives attempted and failed to pass legislation to establish a balanced budget amendment. Unsurprisingly, Republicans supported the measure overwhelmingly, but Democrats stopped the proposed amendment from advancing.

In order for an amendment to become a part of the Constitution, it needs to be approved by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, and then ratified by three-fourths of the states.

On the surface, conservatives might feel like such an attempt to rein in Washington is a positive development, but they shouldn’t. Although it’s true some House Republicans care about the national debt, which now exceeds $21 trillion, many have repeatedly shown they do not, and everyone who voted for the proposed amendment knew it had no chance of passing either the House or the Senate.

Making matters even worse, the proposed amendment includes, in the words of conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), “a loophole you can drive a truck through”: If three-fifths of both houses of Congress approve, unbalanced budgets could be passed without delay.

If Republicans are going to attempt to pass a purely symbolic balanced budget amendment to appease outraged conservatives, the least they could do is give fiscally minded Americans the benefit of a real balanced budget amendment. Unfortunately, Congress couldn’t even stomach the mere thought of a balanced budget requirement that actually balances the budget.

The only reason Republicans bothered to waste time putting together what amounted to a fake balanced budget amendment is to try to calm conservatives’ outrage in wake of Congress’ decision to pass a wildly unpopular $1.3 trillion spending bill in March.

The reason Congress, whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats, will likely never pass a balanced budget amendment is because most members of Congress have a strong personal incentive to continue to run large deficits. Democrats are constantly calling for new costly government programs that will supposedly help one of their most important constituency groups — even though they almost never do — and congressional Republicans have their own special-interest groups to satisfy and are generally petrified of cutting government spending programs because they fear it could result in political losses come Election Day.

Although continuously increasing the national debt comes with monumental risks to America’s long-term economic future, most members of Congress know those problems likely won’t reach crisis-level while they’re still in office. The only people who truly care about controlling government spending and bringing sanity back to Washington are a relatively small group of principled legislators, almost all of whom come from conservative states. Everyone else couldn’t care less about America’s future generations.

A balanced budget amendment is the only way to ensure the federal government acts responsibly. At this point, nothing else will work. But if Congress has no intention of passing a balanced budget amendment, how will this problem ever get resolved?

Although it’s never been accomplished previously, there is a second method for adding a constitutional amendment that generally doesn’t require much effort from Congress. Under what’s commonly referred to as the Article V convention plan, two-thirds of state legislatures can agree to hold an Article V amendments convention, during which the states can pass amendments to the Constitution without the approval of Congress. Three-fourths of states would still need to ratify the proposed amendment for it to become law, but balanced budget amendments have had much more success at the state level, including in many Democratic-leaning states, than in Washington, so it’s reasonable to hope this strategy could eventually work.

There are multiple kinds of balanced budget amendment applications that have been proposed and passed by state legislatures in recent years, but the one with that has been the most successful is the proposal supported by the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, or BBATF. Twenty-eight of the required 34 states have approved the BBATF-backed balanced budget amendment application, and every year applications are considered in states that have yet to approve the plan.

One reason some conservative states have chosen not to pass a balanced budget amendment application is because they fear such a convention could get hijacked and numerous amendments could end up being passed that steal away people’s liberties or undermine existing protections. These fears, however, are completely overblown. Rules have been and will continue to be put in place requiring any such convention to consider only those amendments proposed in the applications.

The Republican Party is supposedly the party of fiscal restraint, but it has proven repeatedly it’s incapable of making the reforms necessary at the federal level. America’s only hope of averting fiscal disaster rests with a handful of states that have yet to pass balanced budget amendment applications.

If they fail, we will all suffer for it.

Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is executive editor and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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