ON-Lion Letter
Philip Wallach begins his lead article in the new Spring 2013 issue of National Affairs by recounting the "automatic-budgeting" mechanism of U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd's 1978 amendment to other legislation that "the total budget outlays of the Federal Government shall not exceed its receipts."  Wallach then also recounts other, similar balanced-budget "requirements" in following years.

"Of course, in all but four of the 30 years since, the federal government has indeed spent more than it has taken in -- running an average of more than $340 billion (adjusted for inflation) and well over a trillion dollars in recent years," he writes in "The Perils of Automatic Budgeting."  "The debt held by the public has grown by more than $10 trillion in that time."

Wallach is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

He sees the sequester adopted as part of the 2011 debt-ceiling fight as another automatic-budget mechanism.  "The automatic budget mechanism has long held Washington under its spell," he continues.  "But again and again it has disappointed, and for precisely the same reason that Byrd's balanced-budget language was meaningless:  As a people no less sovereign than we, future voters (and, more to the point, their representatives) may not feel obligated to respect decisions made in years gone by.

"The intellectual, rhetorical, and political groundwork needed to sustain the ideal of balanced budgets," Wallach concludes, "requires serious effort.  Talking about rules or automatic mechanisms that promise to fix our problems once and for all is entertaining, but it amounts to only more rhetoric in a heated (but so far mostly unproductive) debate. 

"Those who genuinely wish to see some semblance of fiscal balance in the coming decades should instead focus on forging the underlying bipartisan agreement needed to make any budget reform endure.  Without this consensus, jumping straight to the question of rules and mechanisms is premature -- and a harmful distraction."

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee supports National Affairs.
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