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Joe Richardson, Published August 21 2011

Berg should know great label doesn’t make bad sauce good

In the Friday, Aug. 12, edition of The Forum, you report that Congressman Rick Berg, R-N.D., said that he supported the raising of the debt ceiling only after the enabling legislation included “a requirement that both houses of Congress vote on a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” You quoted Berg saying that the balanced budget amendment “is the one thing that can get our country back on track.”

For several years, I have wondered if such amendments were more symbolic than meaningful. After all, will such an amendment define “balanced” and prohibit “off-budget expenditures?” Will such an amendment define the accounting standard under which the calculations are to be made, short of, say, a several-hundred-page accounting manual that prohibits accounting tricks? It appears to me that a “balanced budget amendment” is more a jingle aimed at placating the more simple-minded among “fiscal conservatives” than a meaningful conservative tool regulating us back to fiscal health.

The weekend prior to Berg’s latest circuit of town hall meetings, the managing director of Standard & Poor’s in charge of their Sovereign Ratings Division (the division downgrading our debt from AAA status) said on CNN that a “balanced budget amendment” would be more harmful than helpful to our national creditworthiness. He believes it would “reduce flexibility in a crisis” and noted that, given the history of tricking past binding rules, such an amendment would lack credibility.

Perhaps Berg has a better understanding of these matters than does John Chambers of S&P, but I fear that in selling the jingle over a more meaningful solution, Congressman Berg may do more harm than good. A great label doesn’t make a bad sauce good.

Enough already with the simple pledges limiting a congressman’s flexibility to adjust revenue. Enough already with pushing a great-sounding amendment that down deep will mean little. More substance, please.