Nick Rahall – Congressman, West Virginia (D)

September 9th, 2011

Rahall_200x230Tinkerbell on Wings of Gossamer

In opposing a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the venerable U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd asked the salient question: If the supporters of this Amendment have the two-thirds majority necessary to adopt it, why not pass real legislation by majority vote to bring the budget into balance?

Senator Byrd called the Balanced Budget Amendment “cotton candy for the public mind…Tinkerbell on wings of gossamer.”  Just because we require a balanced budget, he argued, does not mean it will miraculously come into being.  You still have to pass legislation to bring revenues in line with spending.  We might as well amend the Constitution to abolish headaches, baldness, and bad breath, he once argued, as require a balanced budget without a plan for making it happen.

This Constitution Day, as the Congress prepares for the second time this year to consider a Balanced Budget Amendment, I think the Senator would be genuinely pleased to see an engaged debate about the Constitution, which was his purpose in creating “Constitution Day,” with students across the land studying and learning about their Founding charter, even though I am certain he would be absolutely relentless in his opposition to this latest incarnation of the Balanced Budget Amendment.

For all the frustrations today with the divided Congress trying to reach an agreement on a sound, practical fiscal policy, the Balanced Budget Amendment would make that pursuit infinitely more difficult, if not impossible.

The Amendment would, for the first time, codify a partisan and ideological fiscal policy within the Constitution.  This campaign pledge would be ill-fittingly placed alongside the sacred rights enjoyed and defended by generations of Americans, as anachronistic as the 18th Amendment on prohibition and as ignominious as the 21st Amendment that repealed it.

The Amendment would abolish majority rule on fiscal policy questions.  It would require supermajorities to raise revenues, to increase spending, or to incur a deficit.  It would empower an organized minority to dictate our Nation’s fiscal policies, something wholly at odds with the majority requirements adopted by the Constitution’s Framers.

It would hamstring efforts to stabilize the economy in tough times, and limit the flexibility our Nation needs to make long-term investments in physical and human infrastructure.

Such an Amendment would require paralyzing cuts in infrastructure investments, along with education, research and development, and workforce training, which are all essential to creating jobs and the long-term economic interests of our Nation.  It would require dangerous cuts in national security programs, including defense, intelligence, and law enforcement.  It would fall especially hard on seniors and veterans and farmers, and slash safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare with terrible consequences.

So painful and potentially economically cataclysmic would the resulting cuts be that the Congress would be forced to either circumvent the Amendment, or go through the painstaking process of trying to repeal it.

Senator Byrd loved the Constitution.  He studied it.  Over the course of his career, he felt that the document was increasingly in peril.  He was concerned that the Congress was losing its sense of history.  “We ought to understand that it is our responsibility to defend the institution, to defend the Constitution,” he said.  “I think sometimes we bend whichever way the wind blows.”

It is ironic that the greatest threat today to our economy is not the actual debt incurred so much as the alarmist rhetoric and threats to force a default on our Nation’s public credit in order to slash any and all spending programs in sight, without regard to their value and importance to creating jobs.

I think Senator Byrd saw the same demagoguery in the push for a Balanced Budget Amendment, with proponents peddling a seemingly easy fix for a complex problem.  And Senator Byrd cautioned, just as he would caution today, that affixing unworkable amendments to the Constitution would ultimately undermine the People’s faith in the founding document and their trust in their government.

Addressing our Nation’s deficits and debt requires hard choices.  The Balanced Budget Amendments hardly qualifies.  It is more akin to bending to the political winds of expediency, as Senator Byrd would say, a poor substitute for the spine, courage, and principle that will be needed to get our fiscal house in order.

Congressman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) represents southern West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He was first elected in 1976 after serving as a Congressional aide to U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

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