Tag Archives: Judiciary Committee

What would a business-cycle balanced budget rule look like in Illinois?

A few years ago, I testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. I’d been invited to talk about the design of a federal balanced budget amendment and much of my testimony drew on the lessons offered from state experience. Since 49 of the 50 states have such requirements, and since these requirements vary from state to state, I noted that federal lawmakers could learn from the state laboratory.

The best requirement, I argued, would have the following characteristics:

  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.

Michigan Republican Justin Amash has proposed an amendment along these lines. It would be phased-in over 9 years and from there on out would stipulate that outlays “not exceed the average annual revenue collected in the three prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.” Because it requires balance over three years rather than one, Amash calls it the “business cycle balanced budget amendment.”

Writing in Time, GMU’s Alex Tabarrok points to Sweden’s positive experience with a similar rule. And economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane also endorse such a rule in their book, Balance.

Now, some Illinois state lawmakers have put together a proposal for a state rule that appears to be largely based on this model. It requires:

Appropriations for a fiscal year shall not exceed the average annual revenue collected for the 3 prior years, adjusting in proportion to changes in population and inflation.

(Unlike the Amash plan, however, the Illinois plan is not phased in over a number of years. Rather, it takes effect immediately upon passage of the bill.)

To see how it might work in a state, I decided to take the Amash Amendment for a test drive, using Illinois data. The solid blue line in the figure below charts Illinois’s actual general revenue from 1990 to 2012 in billions of current dollars. The dashed blue line phases in an Amash-type “business cycle” balanced budget rule. Once fully phased-in, it would limit spending to the average revenue of the three previous years, with an adjustment for inflation and population growth.


Notice three things:

  1. From 1990 to 2002, and from 2004 to 2007, the rule would have kept Illinois spending in line with Illinois revenue, and would have even allowed the state to run surpluses.
  2. In lean years (like 2008) when revenue levels off, the limit actually continues to rise. That’s because it is based on a longer time trend. This means that it wouldn’t require the sort of draconian budget cuts that balanced budget critics often fear. The accumulated surpluses from previous years could also be used to soften the blow.
  3. Lastly, note the (9 percent) revenue uptick from 2011 to 2012. The amendment would prudently make legislators wait a few years before they can go out and spend that money.

Want Money Out of Politics? Eliminate Government Discrimination

In my work on government-granted privilege, I have repeatedly emphasized the surprising degree of harmony between left and right on this issue. Both abhor the tawdry nexus between corporate power, money, and politics.

(As evidence that I am not the only one who sees such agreement, note that Occupy.com recently reprinted an article highlighting the Mercatus project).

In an article from Friday, progressive blogger Ezra Klein seems to bolster this point:

According to Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to congressional campaigns. Only 0.05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. Only 0.01 percent — 1 percent of 1 percent — give more than $10,000 in an election cycle. And in the current presidential election, 0.000063 percent of Americans — fewer than 200 of the country’s 310 million residents — have contributed 80 percent of all super-PAC donations.

“This, senators, is corruption,” Lessig said Tuesday, in testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “Not ‘corruption’ in the criminal sense. I am not talking about bribery or quid pro quo influence peddling. It is instead ‘corruption’ in a sense that our Framers would certainly and easily have recognized: They architected a government that in this branch at least was to be, as Federalist 52 puts it, ‘dependent upon the People alone.’ You have evolved a government that is not dependent upon the People alone, but that is also dependent upon the Funders.”

There is much in here with which I agree. Campaign spending begets access. Access begets privilege. And privilege, in my view, “misdirects resources, impedes genuine economic progress, breeds corruption, and undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the private sector.”

The same article, however, also highlights the ways in which progressives and libertarians disagree about money, politics, and power. Klein quotes and quickly dismisses Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro. In his own testimony, Shapiro argues:

To the extent that ‘money in politics’ is a problem, the solution isn’t to try to reduce the money — that’s a utopian goal — but to reduce the scope of political activity the money tries to influence. Shrink the size of government and its intrusions in people’s lives and you’ll shrink the amount people will spend trying to get their piece of the pie or, more likely, trying to avert ruinous public policies.

This, Klein argues, is impractical. Moreover, he says, “between the dismantling of the social safety net and the destruction of our military might, the cure might be worse than the disease.” Instead, Klein’s preferred solution is campaign finance reform, perhaps necessitating a Constitutional Amendment to get around First Amendment concerns.

I’ll admit I favor Shapiro’s solution. If we shrink the size—and more importantly, the scope—of the government, the wealthy and well-connected will have nothing to gain from playing politics. I also happen to think that Klein’s solution—controlling political speech—is, in fact, “worse than the disease.” (I think Madison would agree…he even used similar language). Moreover, I think that there are plenty of programs to shrink or eliminate before we get to cuts that eviscerate the safety net or threaten our security. To pretend otherwise is to “shoot the cocker spaniel.”

But in the interest of finding common ground with my progressive friends, let me suggest a modest compromise: the abolition of favoritism in government policy. In an interview with James Buchanan, F.A. Hayek once remarked:

[The First Amendment] ought to read, ‘Congress shall make no law authorizing government to take any discriminatory measures of coercion.’ I think that would make all the other rights unnecessary.

This quotation appears in the beginning of an excellent—but often overlooked—book by Buchanan and Roger Congleton called Politics by Principle, Not Interest: Toward Nondiscriminatory Democracy.

Buchanan and Congleton brilliantly trace the political and economic consequences of forgoing favoritism. What happens when government adheres to a sort of “generality” principle by which all policies are required to apply to all equally? What if there are no carve-outs in the tax code? No special favors in the appropriation process? Notice that this need not be the sort of libertarian paradise that Shapiro and I favor. Government might still spend a lot of money and it might still tax a great deal. But it would be constrained by the generality principle to tax and spend in a nondiscriminatory way (Buchanan and Congleton make an allowance for a safety net by proposing “a flat rate of tax on all income combined with a set of equal-per-head demogrants,” p. 161).

Generality would require both sides to give up their own pet projects which favor particular segments of society. No more “targeted investments” in particular green technologies. No more tax credits for people who have kids. No more subsidies for farmers. No more favors for manufacturing. No more bailouts of some firms and not others. Under such a constraint, a majority of Congress could elect to subsidize industry A, but it would also have to subsidize industries B-Z.

The proposal has an intuitive moral appeal. Government, after all, is constituted to promote the general welfare of the entire population, not the specific welfare of certain segments of society. But as Buchanan and Congleton show, it also has economic appeal. For under a generality rule, “no participant has an incentive to invest resources in efforts to secure differential or discriminatory advantage at the expense of others in the collective enterprise.” (p. 44). And that can make the difference between a society that prospers and one that stagnates.

We all—right, left, libertarian, and progressive—seem to agree that something is wrong when wealthy individuals donate to politicians and politicians hand out privileges to these donors. Klein and Lessig think the answer is to regulate donations. Shapiro and I think the answer is to limit the scope of government.

We can continue to talk past one another while the nation slips deeper and deeper into the grips of the pathology of privilege. Or, we can roll up our sleeves and think of alternative solution that might be acceptable to both the left and the right. How about the abolition of favoritism in government policy?