May 23, 2018
Talk of a balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the U.S. Constitution may seem insignificant to the concerns of scientists, but there are huge implications for science funding, as well as other government programs. In April, the U.S. House of Representatives held a vote on H.J. Res 2, which would require federal government expenditures in any year to be offset by revenues collected in that same year. It would also require a true majority of each chamber to pass tax increases and a three-fifths majority to raise the debt limit. The vote failed to pass the House (233-184), but it had stronger support this year than the last time it came to the House floor in 2011. Senate Majority Leader McConnell reportedly wants to take up a BBA in the Senate, and a vote could come soon after the Memorial Day weekend.
According to a recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a BBA to the U.S. Constitution would be an economically dangerous way of addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. By requiring a balanced budget every year, a BBA would require the government to cut spending and/or increase taxes during periods when our economy is weak, and could potentially tip us into longer and deeper periods of recession. Given that Congress recently passed tax cuts that are projected to increase the national deficit by as much as two trillion over the next decade, passing the BBA would create an increased threat to non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs, under which the majority of federal funding for scientific research resides. In order for Congress to hit a balanced budget target by 2025, cuts to programs would start being phased in by 2020. The CBPP predicts that federal funding across all programs would need to be cut by about 20% in order to balance the budget in 2025; if programs such as Medicaid and Social Security are preserved from cuts, then other programs could see cuts as deep as 40%.
Because the BBA would amend the Constitution, it would have to pass both the House and Senate with a two-thirds majority vote, and it would also have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states within seven years. While the BBA is not expected to pass the Senate, a failed vote could increase support in state legislatures to curb federal spending by calling upon Congress to convene a “Constitutional convention” to amend the Constitution. Currently, up to 28 states have open calls for a convention; only 34 states are needed in order to require Congress to assemble a Constitutional convention. While it is unlikely that this threshold will be reached in 2018, the danger of venturing into the uncharted territory of an Article V convention (under which neither Congress or the courts would have authority) remains. Given the implications, the issue should be on the radar of scientists concerned about federal funding for research.