A bad idea…with 47 co-sponsors

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal today, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) tout their support (along with their 45 Republican Senate colleagues) for a balanced budget amendment to the constitution.

This is a bad idea for three reasons.  First, it is bad economic policy.  Second, if passed, it would likely make the current economic situation much worse.  Third, and perhaps most annoying, it is shameless political posturing of the worst kind.

Bad economic policy.  During times of moderate economic growth, balancing the budget is a good idea.  If the economy is growing rapidly (i.e., overheating), it may be wise for the government to undertake contractionary fiscal (higher taxes, lower government spending) and monetary (higher interest rate) policies to slow it down.  Alternatively, if the economy is in recession–or worse–expansionary fiscal and monetary policies should be implemented.

The economy’s continuing weakness should make us think about an additional fiscal stimulus (see Larry Summers and Laura Tyson). Under a balanced budget amendment, the federal government would have to undertake contractionary policy just when expansionary policy was called for.

Herbert Hoover tried to balance the budget during the Great Depression.  This was not a good choice.  See Paul Krugman’s argument that the balanced budget amendments to state constitutions have led to “Fifty Herbert Hoovers.”

It would make matters worse.  It only took one senator to prevent a Nobel laureate from being confirmed as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.  It takes 41 senators to avoid a filibuster.  And it will take 50 senators to enact a debt ceiling increase.

Given all the obstacles to getting things done in the Senate, making it even harder to pass an emergency spending bill in time of dire need does not make sense.

Sens. Snowe and DeMint argue: “Why will this approach work where others have failed? For one single reason: As senators and representatives, we take an oath to uphold the Constitution. By amending the Constitution, Congress will be forever bound to match our nation’s expenditures with our revenues.”

Governing is about making tough choices.  Not about saying “I will only do my job if you make me.”

Shameless political posturing.  Sens. Snowe and DeMint have been in Congress for a long time (DeMint since the 1990s, Snowe since the 1970s).  Where was their outrage when President George W. Bush increased spending on military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and cut taxes?

Supporting a balanced budget amendment to the constitution is a cheap political trick. And even cheaper since the president is a Democrat.

Alan Greenspan famously hounded Democratic President Bill Clinton to be fiscally responsible, but was ever-so supportive of George W. Bush’s  tax cuts.  During his 1996 presidential campaign, Bob Dole both called for huge ($550 billion) tax cuts and–simultaneously–for a balanced budget amendment to the constitution.

Enough cheap tricks.  Enough political posturing.  Do the jobs you were elected to do.  Raise the debt ceiling and deal with the country’s fiscal issues.

And don’t make us amend the constitution to make it politically easier to do your job.