First, some stark facts: The national debt stands at more than $22 trillion and is growing rapidly. On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress outlining why this is not sustainable.
The report warns of the "serious economic, security and social challenges" that await unless the nation begins to take control of runaway spending. During the last fiscal year, the federal government collected $14 billion more in taxes than in the previous year, but spending increased by $127 billion.
All of this is a necessary prelude for understanding why Utah Rep. Ben McAdams’ proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is so important.
McAdams is a Democrat — a so-called “blue dog” because he represents a conservative district. He is leading a 27-member Blue Dog Coalition in favor of the amendment.
This fact is as remarkable as it is frightening. Remarkable because a balanced budget amendment used to be a favorite of Republican lawmakers. Former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch was a perpetual sponsor, and Utah Sen. Mike Lee has taken his baton.
But frightening because Republicans generally don’t want to talk about fiscal responsibility any more and many left-leaning Democrats are pushing for huge spending increases for things such as universal health care. Neither party, it appears, stands for fiscal responsibility. When 27 Democrats are willing to take up the cause in a public way, people marvel.
To make things worse, some on the left are trying to brand the idea of a balanced budget as racist, arguing that the first thing to go in an austere budget would be funding for social safety net programs that aid the poor.
The news editor of splinternews.com argued this week that “climate change, health care, education, housing and so on” are “much more pressing than the national debt.”
This position ignores how inflation, rising unemployment and higher interest rates — all symptoms of the fiscal collapse that surely will follow irresponsible spending — would hurt those populations worse, and more permanently, than cuts to programs.
In addition, such a day of reckoning would harm national security, as defense spending falls and the cost of materials rises.
Like Hatch and Lee before him, McAdams surely will learn that the road to a balanced budget, especially during good economic times, is virtually impassable. But that shouldn’t be the point.
At the very least, talk of a balanced budget amendment has restarted a discussion that ended somewhere between the precipice of a fiscal cliff and last inauguration day.
Greater austerity does not necessarily mean less help for the poor. McAdams' proposal attempts to shield Social Security and Medicare from too many cuts.
To be honest, however, that is a bit unrealistic. Truly balancing the budget would require major restructuring of all entitlements as well as revenue enhancements, most likely from a tax increase.
But at least some movement toward smaller government would signal private businesses that Washington is interested in long-term growth, rather than the short-term spike that comes through a tax cut that adds to the nation’s debt.
It also would signal to Americans — especially those who are paying attention and hearing the sound of an approaching fiscal waterfall — that Washington, at long last, gets it.