Friday, December 16, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Gimmick shot down

We rarely get the chance nowadays to use the words “courage” and “principled” in the same sentence with any member of Arkansas’s delegation in Congress, but Sen. Mark Pryor afforded us just such an occasion this week. He voted against the Democratic and Republican balanced-budget amendments, then proceeded to explain exactly why both would endanger the country.

If someone runs a poll this week it surely will show a plunge in Pryor’s approval rating. Prospective opponents—Pryor is up for re-election in 2014—must be licking their chops in anticipation of the ad punchlines: “He voted to continue Washington’s reckless spending and runaway deficits.”

Pryor knew that and voted nay anyway. Who knew that he had it in him?

A constitutional amendment to require the federal government to operate with a balanced budget every year is one of those ideas that strike a chord with people. We all want to believe there is something simple that will solve grievous problems. Prohibition was once such an idea; later, term limits. Both were tried and made the problems they were supposed to conquer even worse. A constitutionally imposed balanced budget is another. It would make it nearly impossible for the country to confront a grave crisis, whether it arose from natural, economic or security threats, and each time such a crisis arose national policy would be dictated by a minority in Congress, not a majority. That sounds perverse, but that is how the budget-balance mandates work.

Balanced-budget amendments have always been political gimmicks, and this year they were no different. Republicans like the idea of a mandatory balanced budget when a Democrat is president and Democrats control Congress. It would make governing harder and more dangerous. So when Bill Clinton was president, Republicans came close to passing the resolution and sending the amendment to the states for ratification. When George W. Bush became president and the GOP controlled Congress as well, they said “Never mind.” We remember too well what happened. Clinton had balanced the budget four years running, and Bush and a Republican Congress sent them spiraling out of control. But there was no mention of a balanced-budget amendment in those years, though a few mischievous Democrats pondered raising it.

The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives brought up the balanced-budget resolution last month and passed it. All four Arkansas congressmen, including the lone Democrat, the terminally fickle Mike Ross of South Arkansas, voted for it and promptly issued press statements congratulating themselves for their daring. All of them were confident that it would not pass the Senate and they would never have to face the consequences of their votes.

This week, Democrats and Republicans put their respective budget amendments before the Senate to give every senator a chance as well to get on record for a balanced budget and to issue statements boasting of their courage. Republicans voted for their amendment, and quite a few Democrats voted for the Democratic version. Both failed. Everyone in both parties who is up for re-election this year got to vote for the amendment along with anyone else who felt a little vulnerable.

Pryor certainly is in the latter category but he said no. He could have voted for the Democratic amendment in the safe knowledge that it didn‘t mean anything.

And this is what he said:

“As H.L. Mencken once said, ‘For every complex problem there is a solution which is simple, clean, and wrong.’ This quote describes the balanced-budget amendment. While a balanced-budget amendment makes for an easy talking point, it is an empty solution. Moreover, it’s a reckless choice that handcuffs our ability to respond to an economic downturn or national emergencies without massive tax increases or throwing everyone off Medicare, Social Security, or veteran’s care.

“There is a more responsible alternative to balance the budget. President Clinton led the way in turning deficits into record surpluses. We have that same opportunity today, using the blueprint provided by the debt commission as a starting point. We need to responsibly cut spending, reform our tax code and create job growth. This course requires hard choices over a number of years. However, it offers a more balanced approach over jeopardizing safety net programs and opportunity for robust economic growth.”

That pretty much says it, though he might have added that the president in every national crisis, from the Louisiana Purchase to the George W. Bush wars, unbalanced the budget to respond.

By passing the balanced-budget resolution, or even voting for it, congressmen and senators can say, “Look, I tried so don’t blame me for the deficits.” Then they can go on doing the other popular things: opposing taxes, talking vaguely about big spending cuts in the future and blaming the president and government bureaucrats for economic problems because they regulate industries so vigorously that they won’t hire people.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Pryor’s vote at the top of the front page, but it did not carry his explanations, preferring to quote Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah instead. But the paper and his other opponents will remind us of the vote many times. We prefer to think of it as one of Mark Pryor’s better moments.