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Lindsey Graham ignores his own record, moves to outlaw deficits

After having spent years expressing indifference toward deficits, Lindsey Graham wants a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. This is absurd.

During George W. Bush's presidency, the Republican administration added about $5 trillion to the national debt in eight years. At the time, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina stood by the White House, backing the Bush/Cheney tax cuts and spending bills without regard for deficits.

During Donald Trump's presidency, the Republican administration added over $7 trillion to the national debt in four years. Once again, Graham gladly went along, voting for tax breaks and spending packages, indifferent to budget shortfalls or rhetoric about "fiscal responsibility."

That didn't stop the South Carolina senator from speaking at a press conference this week and endorsing a constitutional amendment to prevent Congress from doing what he's been doing for years. The Associated Press reported:

U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham returned to where his political career started to ask South Carolina lawmakers to pass a proposal amendment to the U.S. Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. Graham said Tuesday that states need to put pressure on the U.S. House and Senate to stop them from spending more money than they take in.

Or put another way, after having helped create large deficits, the senator wants to change the Constitution to outlaw large deficits. For all intents and purposes, Graham is looking for a legal gimmick to prevent people like Graham from casting the kind of votes Graham has already cast.

But brazen hypocrisy is only part of the larger problem with this misguided idea.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the most important thing to remember about the balanced budget amendment is that it would invite disastrous economic consequences. During the Great Depression, for example, FDR's and congressional Democrats' ability to borrow helped save the nation from ruin. During the Great Recession, Barack Obama and congressional Dems embraced the same ideas and again rescued the economy.

Even in 2020, when the pandemic took a swift and brutal toll on the economy, Donald Trump partnered with a Democratic-led House and a GOP-led Senate to run up massive deficits and keep the economy afloat.

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

Of course, if Graham has deficit-reduction ideas, he's welcome to propose them. He is, after all, a prominent senator. If the Republican wants to present a plan to balance the budget, I'd love to take a look at it.

But to push a radical gimmick to tie his and his colleagues' hands, and try to write it into constitutional stone, is nonsense.

Making matters worse is the mistaken belief at the heart of the effort: Graham would have people believe that all deficits are bad deficits. They're not.

The usual line from amendment proponents is that American families have to live within their means, so their federal government should do the same. But even if we put aside the macroeconomic differences between family budgets and the finances of a global superpower, the truth remains that families run deficits all the time — and that's a good thing.

Imagine someone telling you your family would not be 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 loan; you couldn't get a loan to start a small business; you couldn't even 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, even if you wanted to invest in your own future.

It's likely you'd think that was ridiculous, but that's precisely the kind of constraint the balanced budget amendment intends to impose on Congress.

This is not an idea worth taking seriously.