If there were an elephant in your swimming pool would you need to call attention to it? An elephant is difficult to miss and impossible to intentionally ignore. So the problem isn’t in realizing the elephant’s presence, but in removing it from the pool. Federal debt presents a similar predicament, dominating an economy like an elephant does a swimming pool. The question is what can be done about the debt elephant? 

One idea for addressing Washington’s spendthrift habits is a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Theoretically, under constitutional mandate the federal government would be forced to balance annual expenditures with receipts. However, requiring the federal government to balance the budget and forcing it to control spending are quite different. 

A balanced budget amendment without spending controls is a disaster in the making. Once ratified, politicians who favor tax hikes could argue the Constitution mandates tax increases to meet projected spending levels. To be useful, a balanced budget amendment must respect the Constitution’s spirit of limited government. 

Cap, Cut and Balance addressed the fear of constitutionally imposed tax increases. Modeled after H.J.RES.1, it limited federal spending to 18-percent of GDP, required a supermajority to raise taxes, and introduced a balanced budget amendment to the states. With egregious taxation and federal spending limited, a balanced budget amendment could finally fulfill the promise its proponents have long claimed. 

Of course, optimism plays well in an ideal world. Reality is far from ideal. Cap, Cut and Balance passed the House with relative ease. But it had no chance to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and would never have escaped Obama’s veto pen. Democrats will support nothing more than token spending reductions. Thus any compromise on a balanced budget amendment would lack spending controls, making it a constitutional mandate for tax increases. Such a scenario would suit Democrats just fine. 

But problems existed even in the House version of Cap, Cut and Balance. It would’ve increased the debt ceiling by 18-percent, to $16.7 trillion. To put that number in perspective, consider each dollar as one second in time and do the math. A $16.7 trillion debt equals 529,553 years. Chew on that number, if you can do so without choking. Furthermore, a balanced budget amendment would have, at best, only symbolic effect until ratified by 38 states (U.S. Constitution, Article V). Before the proposed amendment could become part of the Constitution the debt ceiling could be raised several more times. 

Was Cap, Cut and Balance mere political theatrics, a distraction orchestrated to divert the public’s attention from the federal elephant in the swimming pool? Or did it represent action toward curing Washington’s debt addiction? Actually, it was both. While easily the lesser of all current evils, Cap, Cut and Balance remained flawed nonetheless.

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