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What Makes for a Good Balanced Budget Amendment?

by Matt Mitchell on November 17, 2011

in Balanced Budget

Today, the U.S. House will begin debating a balanced budget amendment. This morning, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal chastised Speaker Boehner for offering a “vanilla amendment that merely calls for a balanced budget, with no spending limitations or supermajority tax requirements.” Their worry is that, “Under Mr. Boehner’s amendment, spending could rise to 25% or 30% or more of GDP, so long as the budget is balanced.”

This is a misplaced worry. Right now, Congress is able to vote benefits for current voters while putting about 45 percent of the tab on non-voters (our posterity). It doesn’t take a complicated economic model to see that this arrangement systematically biases spending upward. And any amendment that requires current voters to pay for current spending will diminish that bias. As I told the House Judiciary Committee last month, in states where balanced budget requirements are stricter, spending is lower.

Moreover, the editors’ preferred amendment—one that includes some sort of spending limitation—is actually unlikely to achieve its goal. Last year, I examined the operation of various spending limits, using data from 49 states covering 30 years (I wrote about my research in an OpEd in the Journal). I found that those tax and expenditure limits “that limit budgets to some share of income had no statistically significant impact on either state-only spending or on combined state and local spending.” It may be that when states bind themselves with such limits, they make sure that the limit is set so high that it fails to actually constrain.

As far as supermajority requirements for tax increases are concerned, research does suggest that these can limit spending. I guess it is a political call as to whether such a requirement should be tied to a balanced budget amendment. In my view, a balanced budget amendment requires strong bipartisan support for it to be effective. But I don’t do politics.

I do agree with the editors in one regard. There is no need to settle for a “vanilla amendment.” There are many different varieties of balanced budget amendments and some of these have much stronger features than others. In my view, the most-effective amendments are those that:

  1. Require balance over some period longer than a year. This effectively disarms the strongest argument against a balanced budget amendment: namely, that it would force belt-tightening in the middle of a recession. In contrast, if budgets need to balance over a longer time period, then Congress is free to run deficits in particular years as long as they are countered by surpluses in others.
  2. Allow Congress some time to come into compliance. You don’t have to be a Keynesian to worry that a 45 percent reduction in the deficit overnight might be a shock to the system.
  3. Minimize the gamesmanship associated with revenue estimation: Across the country, states with balanced budget requirements have to estimate revenue throughout the year (I’m a member of Virginia’s Joint Advisory Board of Economists and our responsibility is to pass judgment on the validity of these estimates). But this invites all sorts of questions: what model to use for the economy, should revenue be scored dynamically or statically, etc. One way to sidestep all of these questions is to make the requirement retrospective: require that spending this year not exceed revenue from years past.

There are amendments that have these characteristics. For example, H.J. Res. 81 (which now has 54 cosponsors), has all three.

In other news, the amazing Cord Blomquist has managed to get my testimony on the YouTubes:

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