After creating historic deficits, Republicans move to outlaw deficits

The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.
The dome of the U.S. Capitol Building is reflected in a puddle on a rainy morning in Washington.

They're sometimes called "messaging votes." Congressional leaders will bring measures to the floor that they have no intention of passing, purely for symbolic and electoral reasons. These pointless votes are generally a waste of time, though they tend to make assorted partisans feel better.

Some messaging votes, however, are more offensive than others.

The House failed on Thursday to advance a constitutional amendment that would require Congress not spend more than the nation collects in revenue. Some conservative lawmakers had hoped a vote on the bill would calm grassroots conservatives who had been fuming about recent high levels of spending.On a mostly party line vote, Republicans failed to advance the bill, 233-184. Normally, legislation requires 218 votes to win approval in the House and can be passed with just Republican votes. The balanced budget amendment, however, required bipartisan support with a two-thirds majority vote because it was a constitutional amendment.

GOP leaders knew, of course, that this constitutional amendment would fail. More to the point, they voted for it despite the fact that they wanted it to fail.

Indeed, what made yesterday's vote so exasperating was the backdrop against which it came. It was just a few months ago that Republicans approved massive tax breaks the nation can't afford, and the Congressional Budget Office reported this week that those tax cuts will wreak havoc on the nation's finances for many years to come. More recently, Republicans also approved a $1.3 trillion omnibus package that, among other things, increased government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars.

All of which led up to yesterday's vote, in which Republicans said they want a constitutional gimmick to stop Republicans from passing the kinds of bills Republicans just voted for. The people who are creating trillion-dollar deficits are the same people who are saying deficits should be outlawed.

The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell added last night, "A balanced-budget amendment is pretty much always a stupid idea. But you know when it's stupidest? When you've just blown a multitrillion-dollar hole in the deficit, and also, umm, don't even really plan to pass a budget."

And why is balanced-budget amendment pretty much always a stupid idea? Because it would bring disastrous consequences for the economy. During the Great Depression, FDR's and congressional Democrats' ability to borrow helped save the nation from ruin. During the Great Recession, Obama and congressional Dems embraced the same ideas and again rescued the economy.

In both cases, had the Constitution mandated balanced budgets, the prolonged suffering would have been vastly worse.

As we discussed several years ago, if deficit hawks have credible ideas to balance the budget, fine. Let's hear them. But pushing radical gimmicks, tying policymakers' hands out of some misguided belief that all deficits are bad deficits, is nonsense.

Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, explained a while back that this is a "dreadful" idea, which is "frankly, nuts."

At a certain level, I suspect many Republicans know this, but they linked arms yesterday and voted for the constitutional amendment anyway -- not because they wanted it to pass, but because they saw a messaging vote on fiscal responsibility as being preferable to actual fiscal responsibility.