By Penny Smith

The Japanese have a penchant for stylized theatre. Kabuki is an ancient drama-dance form with predetermined plots, dress, and exaggerated facial make-up. Sumo wrestling is both a stylized performance and a life style. In a wrestling bout there is frequently more action in the preliminary formalities than in the match itself. Both involve exaggeration, a sense of nostalgia, and relevance to contemporary life only in metaphor.

A United States variation of such conscious rituals is obvious in some of our performance venues, too. For example, professional wrestling, going back to the 1950s, features a steady and predictable stream of good guys and bad guys, grudges and revenge, stamping and stomping, and a bunch of trash talking. Some wrestlers have even adopted face masks similar to those famously used by their Mexican counterparts. Roller Derby, a co-ed variant of performance sports, divides along the same story lines as wrestling. Except for Have Gun, Will Travel, the television westerns of the 1950s and 1960s left the black hats for the villains.

Republicans routinely and regularly perform one of my favorite recurring political theatricals: The Balanced Budget Amendment (BBA) Caper. It has roughly the following scenes: (1) proclaim Democrats are busting the budget; (2) decry the ever increasing national debt; (3) lament selling our children’s future down the river; (4) demand, as righteously as possible, getting our federal house in order; and (5) proclaim the need to have a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, since we (read Democrats) are unable to self-discipline our spending.

A favorite parallel used in arguments is that families must balance budgets on their kitchen table. If they can do it, so should politicians spending tax-payer money. The obvious folly of that argument is that rarely do families exist in economic balance. They borrow for homes, for educations, and for emergencies.  Even states, also used as balanced-budget exemplars, raise money for large projects through, for instance, bonds.

Here are a few reasons to scoff when the GOP does its BBA Caper.

  • Democratic deficits have usually been tied to emergencies (the Depression, World War II), whereas Republican deficits usually accompany unnecessary tax reductions;
  • Reaganomics spurred a big increase in the national debt as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which only ended when Clinton became President and returned to sensible budgeting;
  • the last balanced budgets we had were under Bill Clinton;
  • Bush 2’s tax cuts then put us back into increasing debt as a function of GDP (the Great Recession did spur increased borrowing under a Democrat, but that, like the Depression, was in response to an emergency precipitated largely by GOP capitalists and not a conscious choice);
  • the current budget, created as the economy is in recovery due to Obama era policies, will unnecessarily push our national debt into the trillions, but the GOP wealthy base and international corporations are giddy, because, while the nation suffers, they benefit; and
  • if the Republicans were really worried about future generations, they would be making different policy choices on a range of issues, like child poverty, education, and health care.

In response to perceived public uneasiness about their belt-busting budgeting, the GOP rushed to embrace the BBA Caper this past week. In spite of the fact that balanced budget amendments are unnecessary (Congress can simply do it without coercion), ill-advised (emergencies always happen and we are very bad at anticipating the future), and unlikely to ever be ratified (you need a 3/4s vote of the states after you pass both houses of Congress by a 2/3s vote), the GOP did it anyway, in much the same fashion as Kabuki dancers don particular costumes and masks.

So, in the fall elections Republicans can go back to their constituents and say they voted for the balanced budget amendment (almost all of them did). What they won’t say is they also crafted a set of tax cuts that ballooned the deficit, without off-setting them with program cuts. Indeed, they expanded military spending. Nor will they say that balanced budgets at the national level have a terrible reputation among thoughtful economists and that national budgets are nothing like family budgets.

What they also won’t say is one of the reasons Republicans engage in this distraction – their ideological desire to reduce federal involvement in domestic programs. It’s part of the shrink government down strategy, so we can “drain the swamp.” Here are a couple of problems with that sleight-of-hand: (1) they want to end or cut relatively popular programs that serve needy Americans, like SNAP, Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP, while pushing for corporate welfare that assists their constituencies; (2) a BBA would likely make recessions longer and affect more people; and (3) it would hold responses to emergencies hostage to a small zealous minority, who could effectively “veto” economic responses by ensuring a super-majority required to over-ride the BBA can not be reached.

The BBA Caper is a close kin to the ObamaCare Disco, a ritualized effort to destroy the Affordable Care Act. Both activities gin up heated rhetoric among a particular set of ideological purists, which the GOP hopes send more of their voters to the polls in November. Both activities waste time, something a GOP-led Congress seems particularly talented at doing; they certainly don’t seem very adept at governing. Both activities are based on falsehoods and misperceptions, easily rebutted with facts. Unfortunately, we appear now to live in an alternative reality in which facts have been replaced by something else. As a Washington Post opinion writer (Catherine Rampell) noted on Thursday: “A balanced budget amendment is pretty much always a stupid idea. But you know when it’s stupidest? When you’ve blown a multi-trillion dollar hole in the deficit, and also, umm, don’t even really plan to pass a budget.”

Way to go, GOP! And the good news: Wait a few months and you’ll undoubtedly see the BBA reappear.