For quite a while, congressional Republicans have maintained, with unnerving unanimity, a simple response to Democratic budget requests: no tax increases on anyone at any time by any amount for any reason. Full stop.
It came as something of a surprise, then, when Rep. Rick Crawford, a conservative Republican from Arkansas, threw the political world a curve ball last week, announcing his support for a surtax on millionaires and billionaires "as part of a broader fiscal responsibility package." It was the first visible crack in the GOP's anti-tax wall seen in many years.
What was unclear, however, is what Crawford expected in return. He was willing to accept the surtax, but what would Democrats be expected to give as part of this "fiscal responsibility package"? As it turns out, he's asked for far too much.
Mr. Crawford, a freshman from Arkansas, offered Democrats a deal -- a 5 percent surtax on incomes greater than $1 million in exchange for passage of a balanced budget [amendment to the U.S. Constitution].
Mr. Crawford said that a few Republicans had privately told him they liked the idea, but that none would go public. [...]
It was that impasse that Mr. Crawford said he hoped to break, with $400 billion in deficit reduction through tax increases on the very wealthy, coupled with the long-sought amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget.
Well, so much for that idea.
I expected Crawford to seek steep concessions -- I assumed privatization of Medicare would have been the most likely price Dems would be asked to pay -- but a modest surtax in exchange for a ridiculous constitutional amendment guarantees that no sensible lawmaker in either party will take this proposal seriously.
Crawford's plan went from courageous creativity to jarring joke with remarkable speed.
The fact remains that a balanced budget amendment would devastate the economy and make responses to future crises effectively impossible. Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, explained recently that this is a "dreadful" idea that is "frankly, nuts."
In addition to all of the usual reasons a BBA is a tragic mistake, I’d just remind Crawford of a couple of related points.
First, the whole idea of the amendment is a cheap cop-out. Policymakers who want to balance the budget can put together a plan to balance the budget. It's hard work, of course, and would require sacrifice and compromise, but those who take this goal seriously can put in the effort and craft a plan.
Backers of this amendment generally don't want to bother. Instead of drafting a plan to balance the budget, Crawford wants a constitutional gimmick that will mandate a policy goal lawmakers can't figure out how to accomplish on their own. That's not responsible policymaking; that's the opposite.
And in case this isn't already obvious, even the point of this endeavor is misguided. Sometimes, running deficits is the smart, responsible thing to do, and to assume that the budget should always be balanced is fundamentally misguided. It's not even about left vs. right, since conservative priorities would be crushed, too. The entire Reagan agenda would have been unconstitutional in the 1980s, and Paul Ryan's budget plan couldn't even be considered if a balanced budget amendment were ratified.
It's a "pathetic joke" of a proposal. Trading it for a surtax that should be on the table anyway is madness.