Balancing act

A federal balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the US Constitution sounds great—as Richard Hanna (R-NY24) notes in a recent mailer on that topic, 49 states already have some form of a balanced budget requirement—but the devil is in the details. Hanna's mailing describes how a BBA would work, at least as far as the House is concerned:

  • Federal government spending cannot exceed revenue receipts in any year unles 3/5 of the House and Senate vote to approve it.
  • Any increase in the debt limit would require a 3/5 vote in Congress.
  • The President would be required to send a proposed balanced budget to Congress each year.
  • Any legislation to increase taxes would require a true majority roll call vote.  Currently, tax increases can be approved by a "voice vote" without personal accountability.
  • Congress would be required to enforce the Balalnced Budget Amendment through appropriate legislation.

But here's the Heritage points out:

...A BBA is constructive, but it’s not the final answer to America’s fiscal woes despite the tools it offers—in large part because it fails to tackle entitlement reform, the most detrimental driver of spending in this country. A BBA is not a neatly packed solution, as no constitutional amendment can replace the hard work of true spending reforms...

The proposed amendment being debated in the stricter and...fundamentally differs from its counterpart in the House, but it still lacks in several areas.

The proposed amendment addresses many key issues requiring disciplinary action on the $15 trillion federal debt. These include a spending cap of 18 percent of GDP, a three-fifths vote to raise the debt ceiling, and a two-thirds votes to raise taxes...

Let's not forget that

...the principal reason for adopting a balanced budget constitutional amendment is to limit the size and scope of the federal government by limiting its spending.

Or that since this is a constitutional amendment, we want to be particularly certain to get the language right. No toothlessness here or anything that would cause this later:

But back to state balanced budget requirements.  We're betting that Rep. Hanna got his information from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which "has traditionally reported that 49 states must balance their budgets, with Vermont being the exception." 

Well, it's not quite that simple; read the NCSL's report, which, among other things, has a really interesting map in it

with this explanation (emphasis mine): 

The stringency of state requirements varies substantially. In 1984, the staff of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations evaluated state balanced budget requirements on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 indicating the most rigorous requirement. For a score of 10, a state had to have a constitutional prohibition against carrying a deficit forward and requirements that the governor propose and the legislature pass a balanced budget. Twenty-six states scored a 10, and 10 more states scored either eight or nine points. According to this evaluation, 36 of the states had rigorous balanced budget requirements. The low-scoring states tend to have only a statutory or constitutional requirement that the governor submit a balanced budget, but not that one be enacted. Figure 1 shows the 26 highest-scoring states and the four with scores of three or less. In California, the voters approved constitutional amendments in 2004 that require the Legislature to enact a balanced budget and prohibit borrowing to manage an end-of-year deficit. Those amendments moved California into the “most rigorous” category.
Sheesh.  Like charity, balancing acts need to begin at home. Just sayin'.