A vote on HR 2560, the Cut Cap Balance Act of 2011, the most comprehensive plan to rein in the national debt, will take place tomorrow. But Barack H. Obama has already threatened a veto.
Details of the Cut Cap Balance Plan
Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-6), author of the Cut Cap Balance Act of 2011. Photo: United States House of Representatives
Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-3) introduced HR 2560 last Friday. The clerk of the House referred it to the House Committees on the Budget and Ways and Means. At eleven pages, it is one of the briefest bills in Congress.
The “cut” part of Cut Cap Balance limits discretionary spending for fiscal year 2012 to $1,019,402,000,000 in new budget authority and $1,224,568,000,000 in outlays. This includes not more than $126,544,000,000 in spending on the “global war on terrorism.” Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, and interest payments would be exempt from spending limits.
The “cap” part brings the total budget down to 19.9 percent of gross domestic product by 2021. (Budget bills typically run for no longer than ten years.)
The “balance” part raises the debt ceiling by about $2.4 trillion, but only after Congress proposes a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.
Details of a balanced-budget amendment
Three forms of that amendment would be acceptable:
Each one would:
- Force Congress to pass a balanced budget, unless three-fifths of both houses agree to an exception.
- Force Congress to limit spending to 18 percent of GDP, unless two-thirds of both houses agree to an exception.
- Set a ceiling on the debt held by the public that could not rise unless three-fifths of both houses agree to raise it.
- Force the President to submit a balanced budget before the fiscal year.
- Forbid any tax increases unless two-thirds of both houses agree to raise taxes.
The only way to set these provisions aside would be to declare war, or at least to declare that US troops are in military conflict that poses an “imminent and serious military threat.”
Political problems with Cut Cap Balance
The House is very likely to pass the Cut Cap Balance bill. The Senate is almost as likely to defeat it. Even if the Senate passes it, Obama has already threatened to veto it. Still, other plans that Congress is considering do not have much better chance of passing.
Practical problems with Cut Cap Balance
The most practical problem with the Cut Cap Balance plan is with the “Balance” part. Congress could waive the balanced-budget amendment in time of war. But at least some versions of the amendment force Congress to declare specifically the military conditions for suspending the budget rules.
Congress already has the power to declare war. (See Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution.) No one has said in what form Congress must declare war. The two latest versions of the balanced-budget amendment say that Congress must declare war against a nation-state to suspend the budget rules. (Thus declaring war against non-governmental groups and the friends, relatives and associates of members would not do.)
The proposed Constitutional amendment would also allow Congress to certify that US troops are fighting in a conflict that presents a clear danger to the country. Again, the two latest versions allow such a resolution with a three-fifths vote of both houses. Furthermore, a resolution to suspend the budget rules must say specifically how much money the country will spend on such a conflict.
But some conservatives and libertarians might take alarm with the first version of the balanced-budget amendment. It sets no limits on the form for declaring war. Furthermore, it allows Congress to vote by simple majorities that US troops are engaged in a national-security-threatening conflict.
Where does Cut Cap Balance stand?
Tea Party activists throughout the country want the Cut Cap Balance act to pass. They might not know about the three different forms of the balanced-budget amendment. In any case, amending the Constitution requires two-thirds of both houses. The current House might not have two-thirds to agree on any of these versions. The Senate would not agree.
The Cut Cap Balance Act itself has only minor problems. The three different balanced-budget amendments have the bigger problems. The Tea Party movement, and certain other movements that call themselves “patriotic,” must settle the question of whether, how, and why a free society declares and makes war.
Featured image: a Weimar-era householder wheels a barrow full of worthless Reichsbanknotes to the corner baker to buy a loaf of bread.