A number of states may soon call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to require that the federal budget be balanced every year. But a convention would pose serious risks, and a balanced budget requirement would be a highly ill-advised way to address the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. It would threaten significant economic harm while raising a host of problems for the operation of Social Security and other vital federal functions, as we explain in a new paper.
By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would risk tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses. Rather than allowing the “automatic stabilizers” of lower tax collections and higher unemployment and other benefits to cushion a weak economy, as they now do automatically, it would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both when the economy turns down — the exact opposite of what sound economic policy would advise. Such actions would launch a vicious spiral: budget cuts or tax increases in a recession would cause the economy to contract further, triggering still higher deficits and thereby forcing policymakers to institute additional austerity measures, which in turn, would cause still-greater economic contraction.
For example, in 2011 one of the nation’s preeminent private economic forecasting firms concluded that if a constitutional balanced budget amendment had been ratified and were being enforced for fiscal year 2012, “[t]he effect on the economy would be catastrophic.” If the 2012 budget were balanced through spending cuts, the firm found, those cuts would throw about 15 million more people out of work, double the unemployment rate from 9 percent to about 18 percent, and cause the economy to shrink by about 17 percent instead of growing by an expected 2 percent.
The fact that states must balance their budgets every year — no matter how the economy is performing — makes it even more imperative that the federal government not also face such a requirement and thus further impair a faltering economy.
Such a constitutional requirement — which would be notably more restrictive than the behavior of the most prudent states or families — would also cause a host of other problems. Requiring that federal spending in any year be offset by revenues collected in that same year would undercut the design of Social Security, deposit insurance, and all other government guarantees. And it would raise troubling questions about enforcement, including the risk that the courts or the President might be empowered to make major, unilateral budget decisions, undermining the checks and balances that have been a hallmark of our nation since its founding. It is not a course that the nation should follow.