The idea of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget goes back at least to 1935. It gained in popularity during the early 1990s, then faded. The recent debt debate has renewed attention to the idea, as Alan Greenblatt reports at NPR:
"The huge difference is that at that time there was some chance at balancing the budget, if you really tried hard," says Rudolph Penner, who directed the Congressional Budget Office during the 1980s and is now a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
"I haven't seen any serious budget proposal at this time, including the president's fiscal commission and the House Republican budget, that would balance the budget before 2030," Penner says.
Any constitutional amendment that Congress considers will likely require that the budget be balanced within a set time frame, most likely 10 years. Doing so would trigger a debate over Social Security, Medicare and tax policy of a scope that would dwarf the type of figures that have been vigorously argued over in recent weeks.
"People don't realize what a balanced budget amendment would mean," says John Tures, a political scientist at LaGrange College in Georgia. "People have wildly distorted ideas about what we spend money on. They think all we have to do is cut foreign aid, which makes up a fraction of the bill, and we'll balance the budget."
For that very reason, Tures supports passage of an amendment. Without the discipline constitutional requirements would impose, he says, Washington will never get the budget under control in time to cope with the aging of the baby boom generation.
A balanced budget amendment, he argues, would give politicians a ready-made excuse whenever they had to make painful choices. "It will be the target to blame everything," Tures says.