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No easy road to balanced budget

Opinions differ on wisdom of a constitutional amendment.


The Ohio Senate last week began hearings on a quixotic mission that is either pointless or necessary depending on your viewpoint.

Nobody disputes that it would be groundbreaking.

The issue, advanced by Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, would have states like Ohio pass a resolution calling for the adoption of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment would be a first. Every one of the 27 amendments to the Constitution has passed through Congress, after receiving two-thirds approval from the House and Senate, respectively, then being ratified by three-fourths of the states.

But Kasich and Stivers, each acting independently of the other, decided to go the alternative route: Pushing 34 states to call for a constitutional convention that would then adopt a balanced budget amendment; 38 states would have to ratify the amendment before it became law.

To Stivers, doing it the hard way might ultimately be easier.

“I just believe that Congress is so deadlocked that Congress isn’t doing anything to solve our long term fiscal problems,” Stivers said.

To others, it might not be a good idea at all.

“You don’t need a constitutional amendment to balance the budget,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “You do need the willpower to take tough votes.”

Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said he’s hopeful the Ohio General Assembly will pass a resolution calling for Balanced Budget Amendment by the end of the year.

If it makes it through the legislature, Ohio would join an estimated 17 states that have active resolutions calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment, according to the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, an organization pushing the issue.

But Faber said it may not have to go that far. “I’m confident once it looks like it’s happening through a constitutional convention, Congress will go ahead and act,” he said.

Shifting momentum

Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union, said people began calling for an amendment in the 1970s, with the issue really heating up in the 1980s and 1990s. At its height, 32 of the necessary 34 states had passed resolutions calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

But momentum shifted. States began rescinding their calls. And for a brief period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed such an amendment might not be necessary; from 1998 through 2001, the United States ran a surplus of up to $236 billion.

“I’m 48 years old,” said Stivers, “and those four years in the 1990s were the only time in my lifetime that we’ve had balanced budgets in this country.”

Though the overall national debt is growing – it’s up to $17 trillion – the annual deficit has shrunk from a whopping $1.4 trillion after the TARP bailout in 2009. This year, it’s projected to be $972 billion. By 2018, the Office of Management and Budget says, it’s projected to be $475 billion.

That’s because of a combination of factors, including tax increases passed this year for families earning more than $440,000 a year, and budget cuts enacted in 2011.

Proponents hope the amendment will help tackle the debt as well as fix what most agree has become a completely broken federal budget process.

Congress has not passed a budget using traditional methods since 2009. It has also veered away from passing its annual spending bills — instead passing a “continuing resolution,” which typically continues funding at last year’s levels. The last time Congress passed all of its appropriations bills in time for the next fiscal year was 1994.

“I would argue that one of reasons why Congress feels completely uncompelled to fulfill even its basic budgetary duties is because there isn’t a constitutional framework that impels them to act,” Sepp said.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he supports such an amendment, saying it would be a “backstop” to protect from over-spending.

“The benefit is obvious,” he said. “If you don’t have the discipline of a balanced budget it’s very difficult to prioritize and make the decisions you have to make.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Sherrod Brown, meanwhile, said Brown supports a balanced budget amendment as long as the amendment itself is balanced and doesn’t prejudge revenue versus spending cuts.

Critics say an amendment might not take into consideration wars and disasters — times when the government needs to spend more to save itself.

Others say it’s a code for something else.

Kogan said the call for a balanced budget amendment is really about shrinking the government; many of those calling for it would never agree to a tax increase. People “use the phrase ‘balanced budget’ because it polls better,” he said.

Unenforceable?

Even if it were enacted, Alan B. Morrison, a law professor at George Washington University, said a Balanced Budget Amendment would actually create more problems than it solves. He said an amendment would foist the enforcement into the court system, meaning courts would find themselves in the unusual position of delving into budget issues.

“It won’t work,” Morrison said. “It’s unenforceable.”

Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said even if the United States wanted to balance its budget this year, it couldn’t — at least not without economically disastrous results.

Balancing the budget this year – or even next – would mean huge tax increases and devastating spending cuts. The results, he said, would send the economy into a tailspin.

“Having budget rules would be helpful,” he said. “I’m not sure the Balance Budget Amendment is the right rule.”

Joe Hallet of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.


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