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Kasich's poor choice for a signature issue

A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is the worst idea in the history of bad ideas. Why doesn't the Ohio governor understand that?
Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks about recent Republican party gains and the road ahead for his party during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla. on Nov. 19, 2014. (J Pat Carter/AP)
Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks about recent Republican party gains and the road ahead for his party during a press conference at the Republican governors' conference in Boca Raton, Fla. on Nov. 19, 2014.
About 20 years ago, John Kasich was effectively the Paul Ryan of his day. The Ohio Republican was chairman of the House Budget Committee; Kasich was considered a numbers wonk by the Beltway media; he had national ambitions; and he was wrong about practically everything.
It was Kasich, after all, who took the lead telling Americans that President Clinton's economic plan would be an epic disaster for the nation. Oops.
Two decades later, however, Kasich is the governor of Ohio and eyeing a 2016 presidential campaign. As James Hohmann reported yesterday, he's also bringing back an idea he liked back during his Capitol Hill days.

"Republicans have a [national] convention, and all they do is have a debt clock up there and talk about how bad it is," Kasich said in an interview. "You've got to do something about it!" Now Kasich is trying to do something about it, something that's never been done in American history and is all but certain to fail again: He's launching a national campaign to pass an amendment to the Constitution through the states, in this case to require a balanced federal budget. Success, though, may be almost beside the point: Worst case, Kasich is out there fighting for his cause, and raising his profile, ahead of a potential 2016 presidential candidacy.

Yes, plenty of ambitious politicians choose a signature issue, and for Kasich, that issue is changing the U.S. Constitution to prevent deficits forever more. The Republican governor seems to realize that Congress won't approve such a measure anytime soon, so the Ohio governor has an alternative approach in mind.
Specifically, as Hohmann reported, Kasich has created a nonprofit group called "Balanced Budget Forever," that intends to amend the Constitution by way of a constitutional convention. He'll need 34 states to call for such a gathering, and then 38 states to ratify the agreed upon changes.
To put it mildly, it's a longshot.
But it's important to understand that Kasich's long odds are a good thing -- a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution is among the worst ideas in the history of bad ideas.
Stan Collender had a good piece in Forbes today, noting, "It's a bit strange to have to say that Ohio Governor and possible Republican candidate for president John Kasich doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to the federal budget."

Never mind that the states will be some of the biggest losers of federal funds if there is a balanced budget requirement in the constitution and so are far less likely to ratify it than its proponents claim. Never mind that Congress is likely to spend more and tax less during the ratification years just because it may not be able to do so if it's ratified. And absolutely never mind that the balanced budget amendment would be a disastrous fiscal policy for the country. There simply are times when a federal deficit is called for because of what else is happening in the economy. For example, a balanced budget requirement in 2008 and 2009 would have made a federal response to the recession impossible and significantly deepened the downturn.

The truth is, if policymakers want to balance the budget, they could simply work towards that goal. As Kasich might recall, his demands for a constitutional amendment looked pretty silly by the late 1990s when the deficit disappeared and the nation was running surpluses.
Years later, if Kasich has a plan to reduce the deficits further, he's certainly welcome to present it. But instead he's pushing a dangerous gimmick to tie the government's hands, all because he's working from the assumption that all deficits are bad deficits, which actual budget wonks realize is total nonsense.
The reality is pretty straightforward: a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution would devastate the economy and make responses to future crises effectively impossible. Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, explained a while back that this is a "dreadful" idea, which is "frankly, nuts."
Bartlett fleshed out a series of reasons why such an amendment would be a tragic mistake, and the list isn't short.
And while I realize these debates can sometimes seem inaccessible to the general public, I think everyone should be able to appreciate one thing: imagine any family or business being told they're not allowed to borrow any money, for any reason, ever. You couldn't take out a mortgage, you couldn't get a car loan, you couldn't take out student loans, you couldn't get a loan to start a small business, you couldn't borrow to respond to an emergency. All debt is bad debt, so there should be an artificial constraint that prevents you from ever owing money.
Most folks, I suspect, would realize such a belief is wildly irresponsible. So why should we apply it to our government?