For those Harvard undergraduates who wonder why politics makes a difference, there is no better issue to consider than the federal budget deficit. It saps the capabilities of the government to deal with the problems that this country faces and limits the investment potential of the private sector. Moreover, the issue is one that impacts our generation to a far greater extent than it does the present generation of leaders.
It is for this reason above all others that the federal government has been spineless in dealing with a problem that has little urgency for present voters. When President Bill Clinton showed the requisite backbone and cut over $600 billion from the deficit, the voters rewarded him with a stunning rebuke in the November midterm elections. Nevertheless, the new Republican majority in Congress has promised to balance the budget once and for all.
The means that the Republicans have chosen to do this show that they are being neither serious nor responsible about their leadership status. On February 28, the United States Senate, with the stated goal of generational responsibility, will vote on the Balanced Budget Amendment. If this assault on the future passes, our generation will live in and lead a nation hamstrung in seeking to satisfy the most basic needs of the country--to say nothing of building a better future for our children.
Like far too many of our political debates, the argument over the Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA, as it is commonly called) has been cast in an either/or form, leaving aside the true issues. In this debate, the question has been cast as whether or not we need to move toward balancing the federal budget. The answer to that question is obviously yes. But the BBA does not help that process; in fact, it hinders our capability to make the decisions necessary to create a vibrant and prosperous economy.
At its heart, the BBA mandates that, by the year 2002, the federal government will no longer spend more than it takes in. The Amendment does not, however, say what steps should be taken to get to that point. In this respect it calls to mind the failed Kellogg-Briand Pact. As the 1920s drew to a close, the major nations of the world signed the pact, which would forever "outlaw" the scourge of war from the world. As the outbreak of World War II a decade later showed, it obviously was not terribly effective.
The Balanced Budget Amendment has a parallel purpose and will probably enjoy the same amount of success. Just as in the case of the decision to go to war, nobody forces our legislators to spend like there is no tomorrow. A piece of paper outlawing the budget deficit isn't worth the paper it's written on.
Yet let's not forget what that piece of paper that it's written on is. The Constitution of the United States is a beautiful document, exquisitely crafted by the Founding Fathers. The Constitution's brilliance lies in the fact that, rather than setting out explicit policy choices, it gives future generations the framework to pick the policy options suited for the times.
The now-defunct 18th Amendment, outlawing the sale of alcohol, should serve as a stark reminder of what happens when the Constitution becomes a repository for our hopes rather than our most basic convictions. While we are at it, we might as well ratify Constitutional Amendments outlawing AIDS, hunger, and poverty.
Muddying the Constitution is not the biggest problem with the Balanced Budget Amendment, especially when we consider the deficit's magnitude. At its heart, the BBA is a gimmick. It lets politicians fly into their districts and sanctimoniously proclaim that they have solved the problem. Yet the problem is still there. At its heart, the deficit problem is a political crisis of will and courage. At its simplest, this is all about politicians who care more about their future than America's future.
It is very important that we bring the deficit to balance. However, in seeking to do this, the Balanced Budget Amendment ties up our ability to effectively deal with our country's future. By mandating that the federal government, except in times of grave emergency, balance its books every year, the Balanced Budget Amendment will effectively prevent our generation from making the investments it feels are needed.
Government should reflect our values. Unfortunately, the federal government too often seems to be a distant conglomeration of faceless bureaucrats who can't understand the daily struggles that American families face. That is why many people are willing to buy into a simple defense of the Balanced Budget Amendment. "If our families have to sit around the kitchen table at the end of every month and balance our checkbook and pay our bills, why shouldn't the U.S. Government do the same?" ask proponents of the BBA.
However, this is only a partial explanation of how our families work. Most families, all small businesses, and certainly most students at Harvard don't balance their accounts at the end of each month. Anyone who has taken an education, car, or home loan understands that sometimes you have to spend more than you are taking in at one point to give you greater earning ability or comfort at a later date. The Balanced Budget Amendment would prevent the government from doing the same.
In terms of regular government spending, it should be our goal to have a government that does not spend more than it has at its disposal. Yet in the case of investment (i,e., education, training, and needed infrastructure), it makes sense to have the capability of spending beyond our means for the long term. Investments allow the country to build a more prosperous future, with a larger tax base. There is no intrinsic sanctity in achieving a balanced budget. If in the process of trying to build a more secure fiscal foundation we sacrifice the future, we will be no better off.
By passing a Balanced Budget Amendment that prevents future generations from making their own choices on the economy, the U.S. Senate will be declaring war on our right to self-determination. There is an old story, ironically one often told by Ronald Reagan, about a young girl who goes to her mother and says, "Momma, you know that old vase that you always say has been passed down from generation to generation?"
"Yeah, what about it," says the mother.
"Well, this generation just dropped it."
By giving us a grossly imbalanced budget, an astronomically huge national debt, and a commensurate deficit in investment, the present generation of political leaders has dropped the generational ball. By taking away our generation's ability to deal with these problems, the Balanced Budget Amendment would drop the ball again.