Tuesday, 26 July 2011
Dumb and Dumber
By Richard J. Klade of Gabby Geezer
For several years, I had legislative liaison responsibilities for the U.S. Forest Service in research or management areas that included the State of Utah. There was a standard saying among legislative coordinators, including those who closely observed the Washington scene, regarding long-time Senator Orrin Hatch. It went like this:
“The only political people dumber than Orrin Hatch are his staff members.”
Now the Utah Senator is again proving his mettle by proposing a Constitutional amendment to require balanced federal budgets.
Mandatory balanced budgets work to some extent at the state level, but there the stakes are quite different. Imagine a few scenarios should the feds have a strict balanced budget system:
• Floods sweep over large parts of the Ohio River Basin. Several governors ask the president to declare disaster areas in their states and provide emergency federal funding to deal with the crisis.
The President cannot comply because it is late in the budget year and the government has insufficient funds earmarked for natural disaster relief, has no surplus funds in other accounts and cannot borrow money to cope with the unforeseen disaster.
• North Korea, without warning, launches a massive missile attack on U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan. Military leaders urge immediate retaliation.
The commander in chief says, “Sorry, boys, but we’re maxed out on the defense spending budget item right now. Your actions will just have to wait until next fiscal year unless we can quickly get three-fourths of the states to change the Constitution. We’ll probably have to eliminate Social Security next year to handle the extra military funding if we can’t get a substantial tax increase passed in a hurry.”
• The State of California goes bankrupt. The governor asks Congress for emergency funding to maintain the education, law enforcement and prison systems while all the legal issues are being resolved.
Congress has no funds budgeted for such bailouts, so it decides to respond by cutting 200 billion dollars from the authorization for defense spending.
• Unprecedented forest and range fires burn huge acreages throughout the western states. The U.S. Forest Service asks Congress for a supplemental appropriation to pay for combating the blazes.
To comply with the request, Congress cuts general disaster relief funds earmarked for such things as unforeseen flooding in the midwest.
And round and round it could go. The federal government is where the buck stops when disasters strike us. That’s why the founding fathers wisely provided our government with the ability to borrow funds and said nothing about balanced budgets.
We do need to reduce the size of the national debt in the near future, but removing the ability to borrow when necessary would be sheer folly. Borrowing is necessary right now and will be for some time to keep the good ship America from sinking and sucking the rest of the world’s economies down with it.
Senator Hatch is smart enough (just barely) to know that many Americans are dumb enough to think a federal balanced budget requirement would be just peachy creamy. In reality, a balanced budget amendment would be a terrible impediment to responsible government at the national level.
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