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Balanced Budget Amendment Definition Difficult To Pin Down

Ohio Governor John Kasich is back on tour today in the key presidential primary state of New Hampshire. And he’s once again promoting a balanced budget amendment. But the concept is so complex that his critics and supporters can’t agree whether a balanced budget amendment is a good or bad idea.  Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler explains.

It sounds like a simple concept – the government should spend no more than it takes in.  The non-partisan group No Labels is pushing a four-point national agenda which includes a balanced federal budget by no later than 2030 – which means that revenue and expenditure would be equal. Former US Comptroller David Walker is one of the founders of No Labels, and says he’s glad to hear discussion on the amendment, which he says would restore what he calls “fiscal sanity” at the federal level.  

“We have to be able to bring fiscal discipline back, and we do need an amendment that focuses in my view on how much debt as a percentage of the economy should we be able to take on.”

But even those who support the cause of a balanced budget say there’s a difference between the deficit and debt. Walker says he’d love to see the feds create a separate capital budget for infrastructure – like Ohio has – so that the operating budget could be balanced but long term investments could still be made. Rob Walgate is the vice president of the conservative American Policy Roundtable, based in suburban Cleveland. He’s a frequent critic of Kasich, but says the balanced budget amendment discussion is an important one to be having – and for people to understand it’s about debt and spending together. 

“As individuals when we talk about balancing our budget, are we talking about balancing our budget or are we talking about finding another credit card, another place to place to shift debt off to? Because if that’s what we’re doing, the federal government is doing a lot of the same things, playing a shell game with money.”

But critics still caution that the conversation about a balanced budget amendment can be oversimplified to exclude critical spending that individuals don’t have. Dale Butland is a longtime Democratic consultant and the former state chief of staff for US Senator John Glenn. He says it’s important to remember that when households are tightening spending in tough times, government often spends more on jobless benefits and safety net programs. 

“Yes, ultimately you have to balance the budget. But the right time to raise taxes or to cut spending – both of which would probably be required to balance the budget – is when the economy is humming, not when it’s struggling.”

Walker says well-crafted legislation could allow for “outs” of the balanced budget requirement during times of crisis, such as recessions, national disasters or wars. Kasich is urging states to call for a constitutional convention at which his balanced budget amendment could be considered. 28 states have passed resolutions – only six more are needed for a convention to happen. 

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