Unbalanced amendments

<b>CORRECTION, 11/22/11</B> - Steve Sebelius' Sunday column contained an error. The balanced budget amendment rejected by Congress on Friday would allow for tax increases with a simple majority vote.

Suddenly, everybody loves the balanced budget amendment.

"We simply cannot afford Washington's spending spree any longer," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

So do it, congressman. Your party is in control of the House of Representatives, right? You don't need an amendment to balance the budget -- or at least the House didn't when Bill Clinton was president.

Stop talking about it and just do it.

Unless, of course, talking about it is the point. When the measure failed in a Friday vote 261-165, the news releases came fast and furious.

"Talk about taxing the faceless rich and corporations all you want, but the fact remains that when taxes are raised, we all pay more in the form of fewer jobs, lower wages and higher prices for goods and services," complained Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev.

He should really know better. Here in Nevada, there is no corporate income tax on big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target or Kmart. Yet studies conducted in 2002 and 2011 have shown that prices are not appreciably lower here -- and in some cases are even higher -- than they are in surrounding states, which do impose a corporate income tax.

If taxes lead to higher prices, where's Nevada's low-tax discount, congressman? And why is Nevada suffering from highest-in-the-nation unemployment if the state hasn't raised taxes and, as Gov. Brian Sandoval noted last week, actually cut them for most small businesses?

Hint: The answer may have something to do with building the state's economy on volatile industries such as construction and tourism, which have suffered greatly in the recession.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller joined the fray, although with the defeat of the House measure it doesn't appear he'll get to vote on the balanced budget amendment himself. "I applaud the Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives that [sic] came together today to try and put American's [sic] fiscal house in order," Heller said. "Balancing the federal budget is an important step in creating economic certainty that small businesses need to create jobs."

Economic certainty? There are plenty who believe a balanced budget amendment would create nothing but economic chaos.

One of the prime arguments against the amendment is that it would result in deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits and other services. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates a cut of $1.2 trillion to Social Security alone, but that assumes cuts will be made proportionately. Let's counter-assume that lawmakers would try to spare popular programs from the full weight of the budget ax -- there would still need to be reductions made. The Wall Street Journal opined in April that the amendment would essentially end Medicare as we know it. And even conservative priorities -- such as defense -- couldn't be spared.

Not only that, but a balanced budget amendment would certainly create much more pressure to increase taxes, which doesn't increase certainty for small business. To get around that, this version of the balanced budget amendment requires a three-fifths majority in each house to raise taxes.

That means a supermajority of 261 representatives and 60 senators -- expanding the anti-democratic trend that has hobbled the Senate from being able to consider even routine matters. (An exception was made, of course, for times of war, because visiting death upon foreign lands is a high priority.)

The saddest thing about this debate is that Republicans have a valid point: National spending cannot continue at the pace it's been going. But by trying to advance that point via the silly gimmick of a balanced budget amendment geared more toward political gain than real reform, the GOP has failed to do anything to actually fix the problem.

Too bad there's no amendment to fix that.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com, or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.