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OPINION: Budget amendment no easy sell

by CHUCK MALLOY/Guest Opinion
| March 7, 2024 4:07 PM

We’re hearing a lot of pros and cons these days about a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, and the question comes down to this: Is it possible for Congress to exercise fiscal restraint without a congressional mandate?

Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who spent nearly 30 years in Congress, says flatly that members simply can’t help themselves. A national debt that is at $34 trillion, and goes up $2 trillion a year regardless of who is sitting in the White House, lends credence to Craig’s statement. He views a convention of states, under Article V of the Constitution, as the first step toward fiscal sanity.

Craig says the system in Congress is broken, using recent votes by Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo as examples. They voted for a nearly $100 billion aid package to Ukraine and Israel, in the name of national security.

“They said it was critical and necessary … so they voted for it,” Craig said. “Ukraine, live or die, has nothing to do with the security of this country. But every program is like that and every aspect of the budget is like that.”

The culture in Washington needs to change, Craig says, and the only way for that to happen is to impose a constitutional requirement for a balanced budget. Idaho’s all-Republican congressional delegation agrees with that general assessment.

Craig has been fighting this cause since he went to Congress in 1981 — when Joe Biden was a dashing young senator in his 30s. Lately, Craig has been talking with Idaho legislators who are looking at two balanced-budget resolutions. One of those resolutions, which has Craig’s support, supposedly would confine a constitutional convention’s agenda to a balanced-budget amendment.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel of Boise, for one, is skeptical about whether a convention could be confined to one subject. Rubel, a Harvard Law School graduate, says legal scholars generally dismiss the idea.

“I agree that the national debt is a problem, and we need to get our fiscal house in order,” Rubel says. “The question is how to solve it. If you have a leaky pipe in your house that keeps flooding your kitchen, you need to do something about it. But is the thing that you do is burn down the whole house?”

Rubel sees an endless string of problems if a constitutional convention were to turn into a three-ring circus.

“Rewriting our Constitution is likely to cause much bigger problems than the fiscal imbalance that we have right now,” she says. “We could lose our First Amendment, our Second Amendment, our due process and any number of our precious protections.”

Rubel, at least on this issue, sides with Idaho Republican Party Chair Dorothy Moon — which may be an indication about a balanced-budget proposal. Both have concerns about a possible runaway convention, and question the overall representation at a convention of states.

“There are ways to amend the Constitution, but that only happens when there is broad-based buy-in from the public,” Rubel says. “People will say, in the abstract, that they want a balanced budget amendment. But do they want it enough to give up their Social Security … their Medicare … stop fixing roads? They’ll say no. 

"At the end of the day, people want a balanced budget if they can have all the goodies in life that they enjoy. But if it requires real sacrifice, most Americans are not willing to do that.”

And, members of Congress keep getting elected — and re-elected — based on their ability to bring home the bacon to their districts.

Of course, Congress could pass a balanced budget without a constitutional amendment, but roadblocks keep getting in the way. Democrats oppose “entitlement” reforms and Republicans don’t want to raise taxes on billionaires. So, the deficit balloons by the trillions of dollars.

“Those actions are not taken because members don’t have to,” says Craig. He’s right about that. Also, the deficit is way down on the list of voter priorities during election campaigns.

One thing for sure, we wouldn’t have to worry about term limits if incumbents were voted in (or out) based on their success dealing with the deficit.

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Silver Valley native Chuck Malloy is a longtime Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.