Wednesday, November 23, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Amendment not needed

For every complex human problem, H. L. Mencken said, there is always one grand answer that is neat, plausible and wrong.

The current grand design is the balanced-budget amendment, but luckily we will not have to yet again endure the fulfillment of Mencken’s axiom. The U. S. House of Representatives failed last week to adopt the amendment and send it to the Senate.

All four Arkansas congressmen voted for the amendment, then immediately put out statements trumpeting their courage and denouncing the perfidy of the Democrats (and handful of Republicans) who voted to deny the American people this great solution to their travails.

Rep. Mike Ross, the South Arkansas Democrat, was “very disappointed” and noted that he had signed as a sponsor of the amendment in every session since he arrived in Washington a decade ago. Indeed he has.

Rep. Steve Womack of the mountain district was “disappointed that this Congress missed a watershed moment.”

Our own Rep. Tim Griffin was “incredibly disappointed” that Democrats chose to play politics and defeat the amendment. (He didn’t mention the Republicans who voted against it or explain how it is playing politics to vote against a crowd-pleaser like the balanced-budget amendment.)

Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro put out a statement calling the vote “disappointing” as well as irresponsible and shameful.

But not one of them could really have been disappointed. They were secretly ecstatic, as has been every thinking member of Congress for three decades who has voted for the amendment or signed on as a sponsor. They get to register a pleasing vote and not have to worry about having contributed to the country’s ruin.

The vote on a balanced-budget amendment was just good theater, a chance to tell people back home, “Look, I voted to solve this debt problem so my hands are clean. Don’t blame me for the deficits or any calamity that follows from this standoff over the budget.”

Politicians have been doing this for years. Some 35 years ago, there was a drive to get state legislatures to petition Congress to propose a balanced-budget amendment. Both houses of the Arkansas legislature whooped it through without a debate, pausing only to get a roll call vote so that they could show they voted to balance the federal budget. It was a meaningless vote, substantively. Only one lawmaker voted against it. Rep. J. Gayle Windsor of Little Rock, probably the most conservative member of the House and counsel for the Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries, wanted his vote recorded as no. He did not want his friends and family to think that he would vote so casually for a politically pleasing resolution that would be so destructive to his country on the unlikely chance that if it were ever to be enacted.

People love to point out that Thomas Jefferson favored amending the Constitution to prohibit the federal government from borrowing. He did, but then he was grateful for his lack of success for it would have prohibited the United States in 1803 from borrowing much of the $15 million with which he bought the Louisiana Territory. Otherwise, we might be colonies of the French or Spaniards today.

Ronald Reagan loved the theory, but if it had been in place he could not have borrowed the trillion dollars or so that he spent to pull the country out of the deepest recession since the ’30s.

A rigid balanced-budget law would be fine were the nation never to experience wars or domestic cataclysms or if the political system could be expected to put aside political grasping and vote in lopsided numbers in the national interest when such a crisis does occur. We know the answer to that.

What Griffin and the others say is that Congress—by that, he means Democrats—cannot be relied upon to balance the budget so you have to force them by the Constitution. But remember that the last time the Democrats were in charge—the 1990s—they passed the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which shrank the mammoth Reagan-Bush deficits and then produced four straight years of balanced budgets—no, four years of surpluses. It was extremely unpopular, leading to the defeat of many Democrats in both houses who voted for it, a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and deep drop in the popularity of the president who pushed it.

Who was playing politics then?