Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Balanced Budget Amendment

Mike Lee, the newly minted Senator from Utah, is willing to work with Democrats to get the peoples' business done this year on one condition: passage of an amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget. The right-tilted blogosphere has picked up on the idea, and he just announced his position on NPR. Rightists also advocated this amendment back in 1994, so this is hardly new.

This would essentially be a Constitutional provision which would be enforced only in the House of Representatives, which is the house of Congress which originates all appropriations, spending, and revenue measures. Unlike most provisions in the Constitution, it does not speak to the interplay between branches. There is a textual check with no enforcement mechanisms. Courts are unable to force Congress to stay within a balanced budget because such a lawsuit would ask federal courts to revise every act of Congress over a budget cycle, asking them to legislate from the bench. There is also no instruction to state budgeting processes, which are paramount to state sovereignty.

Essentially, the rightists backing this amendment would like the U.S. Constitution to tell the House more explicitly how to do its job. I don't think this is necessary. I think that the voters should be on top of telling their legislators to come up with realistic budgets which ensure the general welfare of the American public. There is simply no reason that this should be in the Constitution. After all, if the House doesn't want to produce a balanced budget, a Constitutional amendment can't force them to produce one. The voters, on the other hand, have that power. Demanding that the Constitution include such a provision gives short shrift to the necessity that the citizenry drive responsible budgeting in Congress.

Senator Lee is not dumb enough to think this amendment would be effective. At least he shouldn't be. He is a former law clerk for Justice Samuel Alito, though obviously before he was elevated to the Supreme Court. So what game is he playing?

The answer lies in the story of Lee's ascent to the Senate. Mike Lee beat out incumbent Bob Bennett at the Utah Republican nomination convention by relying on rightist infrastructure. He gained support among rightwing activists and built a big enough coalition to oust a very conservative senator from the right. Mike Lee is paying back his activist base because they ensure his reelection in the future. There is a very small likelihood of a strong Democratic challenger in Utah in the next two cycles, so the biggest contest for him coming up is capturing the Republican activist base.

Repaying the base with a highly symbolic demand is a little bit silly, but his bargaining chip is the (recently popular in GOP circles) mere possibility of cooperation to govern responsibly. His first threat is to vote against raising the debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the American economy would be put through a new international investment crisis. The focus on the budget is a shrewd move considering his target: the ultra-right uniquely motivated activists who created the Republican victories in 2010.

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