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The half-mad tea party

Can Montana teach D.C. how to balance a budget

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This week's events in Congress should banish any doubts about the level of political insanity in our nation's capital. We've tumbled down the rabbit hole with Alice and what should we find but the Mad Hatter's tea party in full swing as the nation topples toward fiscal default. It would be great to say there was a voice of reason in the cacophony that could point us back up to reality. Since that doesn't seem to be the case, perhaps D.C. could take a tip from Montana's constitution to find a way forward.

The past week has been sacrificed to the Tea Party's idea of what needs to happen to deal with the nation's debt-ceiling crisis. The Taxed Enough Already party wants billions of dollars of spending reductions in next year's budget and trillions over the next decade. If they don't get 'em, so we're told, it's game over for any attempt to raise the debt ceiling. And so, with much fanfare and prancing, the Republican-dominated House will spend precious days allowing lengthy exhortations of the benefits of the Tea Party's "cut, cap and balance" proposal.

President Obama, perhaps in an attempt to reverse his lagging image as a progressive leader, has boldly threatened to veto the plan should it reach his desk. But that's a meaningless threat since the Tea Party's plan has no chance of passing the Senate. In essence, Obama adds to the smoke and mirrors with yet more stale political theater when it might be more prudent to at least consider some aspects of the plan before pitching the whole thing overboard.

While it's easy to dismiss the faults of the Tea Party plan, there is one segment that might not only be worth thinking about, it might be worth implementing. That would be the requirement that our nation adopts a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

Montana's Constitution already has a requirement for a balanced budget. It's exactly one sentence long in Article VIII, Section 9: "Appropriations by the legislature shall not exceed anticipated revenue." That's it. And all it means is that our state, like many others, cannot spend the future into bottomless debt by living beyond its means.

Section 10 of Article VIII of the Montana constitution adds the proviso that "The legislature shall by law limit debts of counties, cities, towns, and all other local governmental entities." Again, a very sensible requirement since, as our latest national predicament and long experience have shown, the so-called needs of politicians are all too often more about bringing home the pork to their districts than actually prioritizing spending for what our society actually requires. When electioneering trumps fealty to future generations, conscience loses out to political expediency.

The Montana legislature can borrow money by issuing bonds. But that takes a two-thirds vote of both the state House and Senate: "No state debt shall be created unless authorized by a two-thirds vote of the members of each house of the legislature or a majority of electors voting thereon. No state debt shall be created to cover deficits incurred because appropriations exceeded anticipated revenue."

History shows that these common-sense requirements for government spending have served Montana and its citizens well. Through all the Republican and Democratic legislatures and governors, our state budgeting process has avoided enormous debts that get passed on to future citizens.

Before Obama and the Democrats toss the baby out with the bathwater, wouldn't it make sense, just for a minute, to entertain the possibility of adopting at least that part of the Tea Party plan?

Sure it would. But that's not likely to happen for a number of reasons.

Foremost is the same old partisan football game the electorate has tired of. Republicans will continue to bash Democrats as "tax and spend" and Democrats will bash Republicans for kowtowing to the rich while throwing the less fortunate to the sharks. Both, unfortunately, are true. But neither gets us very far down the road to a solution to the debt crisis.

By making his veto threat, President Obama has already abdicated his responsibility to thoughtfully consider any aspect of the Tea Party plan. It's a classic case of chest pounding, but that too has outworn its welcome with the public. If Montana can live—and live long and well—with a constitutionally required balanced budget, why shouldn't the nation follow our lead? And why wouldn't Congress pass such an amendment and put it out to a vote of the entire populace? What do they have to fear—and what do we have to lose?

Unfortunately, this particular provision of the Tea Party's plan comes festooned with tea bags, just like their hats. They could just settle for Congress adopting the balanced budget amendment and declare victory. But they also want no new taxes without a two-thirds vote of Congress, virtually assuring the Bush tax breaks for the already wealthy in perpetuity.

And so, in the final days before America defaults on its enormous debt, we see a sad version of the Mad Hatter's party instead of serious deliberation. Perhaps the time has come for Senators Baucus and Tester and Representative Rehberg to put away the partisan barbs, pass out hundreds of copies of the Montana Constitution to their cohorts, and bring some sense to the debate. It's not political theory, after all, it's reality. And it actually works...unlike Washington, D.C.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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