Friday, November 25, 2005

Amendment? Nein Danke (Pt. II)

A term-limits amendment is sort of a farcical proposal for cutting down on pork in the federal budget. What about the other two I imagined when first I encountered the quick-link on Instapundit? Let's start with a balanced budget amendment.

Like term limits, this used to be a major feature of Republican politics (and I believe Bob Dole made motions towards it in 1996, though I could be wrong there). Also like term limits, it would have some obvious benefits: deficits, in general, are bad news. Also like term limits again, Republicans stopped talking about it once they realized that they like deficit spending as much as any Democrats do. [9/11 changed everything--ed.]

But mandatory budget-balancing has no place in the Constitution. It's not very difficult to imagine scenarios in which incurring debt and deficits are vitally important, and Congress should not be crippled by having to violate the Constitution in order to do so. Moreover, whether or not a budget-busting policy is good policy, it is well within the scope of a legislature's autonomy to decide that the utility of some policy outweighs the consequences of incurring debt to enact it. Codifying one's policy preferences---even if they are good policy preferences---in the Constitution is a way of imposing ad hoc law. (Not so with a right-to-privacy amendment, I've argued elsewhere.)

But would a balanced-budget amendment even do anything about pork? Again, I'm not so sure that it would. Obviously, setting an upper limit on spending turns competition for pork into a zero-sum game, but that's about all that can be said for it. How exactly would making spending a pot-limit rather than no-limit enterprise balance against the forces that drive wasteful spending? Here's my guess: the pressure each congressmen feels to retain incumbency---and hence the motivation to win budgetary earmarks---is too strong for mandatory spending caps to have a salutary effect on it. Instead, what you could expect from a balanced budget amendment is an increase in discretionary revenue (that means higher taxes) and, when there's a choice between legitimate/necessary expenditure and waste, wasteful appropriations win out most of the time. Perhaps the rate of increase in pork will slow a little, perhaps not. Neither outcome is a huge victory.

A balanced budget amendment neither alters the nature of congressional incumbency nor sets up any kind of referee to coordinate anti-pork voting. (The former proposal is up to voters, and only up to voters; the latter I'll get to in the next post.) What you get instead is a kind of prisoner's dilemma: everbody is better off if every member of Congress votes against pork-barrel spending, but the rational thing to do, from the point of view of staying in office, is to vote for it. Which is another way of saying: exactly what we have now.


At 2:42 AM, Blogger Tom said...

I don't really think you've clarified why a RTP amendment is different from a balanced budget (BB) amendment.

You intimated that there was some theory by which you could differentiate my tongue in cheek speed limit amendment from your RTP amendment, but you didn't fully spell it out. Now, the troubling thing about this particular post is that you seem to turn the same reasoning on the BB amendment that I use on the RTP amendment. To wit:

[W]hether or not a budget-busting policy is good policy, it is well within the scope of a legislature's autonomy to decide that the utility of some policy outweighs the consequences of incurring debt to enact it.

Make the obvious replacements in the above argument (also, replace “autonomy” with something like “capacity”) and you have my argument against the RTP amendment. In both of these areas it seems to me that legislatures will assess costs and benefits reasonably.

Essentially you seem to be saying this: “The question of whether something should be immune from the democratic process (constitutionalized) is one of institutional capacity. If the legislature can handle it, democratic theory necessitates letting it do so.”

Now, it seems like you have two responses:

1) No, it’s not institutional capacity I’m talking about. It’s something else entirely, but now I need to come up with a new way to reject the BB amendment.

2) Yes, it is institutional capacity that lets me reject the BB amendment, but now I must show that the courts will do better cost/benefit analyses in the area of privacy than will legislatures.


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