A balanced budget amendment for the federal government is being debated in Washington DC. There are a lot of reasons to like a constitutional amendment that disallows deficit spending, but there’s a real risk of such an amendment being so watered down as to be meaningless.
One concern is that an amendment that passes without requiring super majorities for increases would only ensure that the government finances overspending with tax hikes. But another concern is an exemption Senator John Hoeven discussed today in an interview:
Hoeven also expressed support for a balanced budget amendment, though with some exceptions. “I believe we need a balanced budget amendment for this country,” he said. “We’ve got to do that as a country. We need a balanced budget amendment that really does on a common sense level require that we balance our budget except for in times of war.”
Except for in times of war? Taken at face value that exemption might not seem that objectionable. I think most of us would agree that if our nation is fighting to defend itself in some future conflict that running a deficit would be preferable to, say, letting our troops go without support.
That said, given the somewhat loose way our government defines “war” these days, would a balanced budget amendment with that sort of an exemption ever kick in?
For instance, we’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. We’ve been at war in Iraq since 2003. We’ve fought a war in Libya without Congress even authorizing it. And then there’s the “war on terror” which is about as ill-defined as a war can get.
My point is that for the last decade, under a balanced budget amendment with an exemption for times of war, there would have been no requirement for Congress to avoid deficit spending.
That’s wrong. If we’re going to go to war, if we’re going to decide that a conflict is worth the lives of our soldiers (not to mention our tax dollars), then shouldn’t we be willing to raise taxes or sacrifice other federal spending to pay for it?
Maybe our political leaders would be a bit more responsible about going to war if they knew they couldn’t finance those wars with deficit spending.