For every complex human problem, H. L. Mencken said, there is always one easy answer that is neat, plausible and wrong.
Prohibition was the noble experiment that would make Americans a moral and law-abiding race, cutting taxes big time for the rich and corporations would lead to jobs and abundance beyond our dreams, a unified currency system would produce a stable and prosperous Europe, and the list goes on.
The current grand design is the balanced-budget amendment, but luckily we will not have to yet again endure the fulfillment of Mencken's axiom. The U.S. House of Representatives failed last week to adopt the amendment and send it to the Senate.
All four Arkansas congressmen voted for the amendment, then immediately put out statements trumpeting their courage and denouncing the perfidy of the Democrats (and a handful of Republicans) who voted to deny the American people this great solution to their travails.
Rep. Mike Ross, the South Arkansas Democrat, was "very disappointed" and noted that he had signed as a sponsor of the amendment in every session since he arrived in Washington a decade ago. Indeed he has.
Rep. Steve Womack of the mountain district was "disappointed that this Congress missed a watershed moment." Rep. Tim Griffin was "incredibly disappointed" that Democrats chose to play politics and defeat the amendment. (He didn't mention the Republicans who voted against it or explain how it is playing politics to vote against a crowd-pleaser like the balanced-budget amendment.) Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro put out a statement calling the vote "disappointing" as well as irresponsible and shameful.
But not one of them could really have been disappointed. They were secretly ecstatic, as has been every thinking member of Congress for three decades who has voted for the amendment or signed on as a sponsor. They get to register a pleasing vote and not have to worry about having contributed to the country's ruin.
The vote on a balanced-budget amendment was just good theater, a chance to tell people back home, "Look, I voted to solve this debt problem once and for all so my hands are clean. Don't blame me for the deficits or any calamity that follows from this standoff over the budget."
Some 35 years ago, amid alarm over rising deficits, there was a drive to get state legislatures to petition Congress to propose a balanced-budget amendment. Both houses of the Arkansas legislature whooped it through without a debate, pausing only to get a roll call so that they could show they had voted to balance the federal budget. It was a meaningless vote, substantively. Only one lawmaker voted against it. Rep. J. Gayle Windsor of Little Rock, probably the most conservative member of the House and counsel for the Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries, did not want his friends and family to think that he would vote so casually and cynically for a politically pleasing resolution that would be so destructive to his country if it were ever to be enacted.
People love to point out that Thomas Jefferson when he took office in 1800 favored amending the Constitution to prohibit the federal government from borrowing. He did, but then he was grateful for his lack of success for it would have prohibited the United States in 1803 from borrowing much of the $15 million with which he bought the Louisiana Territory. Otherwise, we might be colonies of the French or Spaniards today.
Ronald Reagan loved the theory but he did not want it on his watch. If it had been in place he could not have borrowed the trillion dollars he spent to pull the country out of the worst recession since the '30s.
A rigid balanced-budget law would be fine were the nation never to experience wars or domestic cataclysms or if the political system could be trusted to put aside political grasping and vote in the national interest in sufficiently lopsided numbers when such a crisis does occur. We know that couldn't happen now.
What Griffin and the others say is that Congress — by that, he means Democrats — cannot be relied upon to balance the budget so you have to force them by the Constitution. But remember that the last time the Democrats were in charge — the 1990s — they passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, which quickly shrank the mammoth Reagan-Bush deficits and then produced four straight years of balanced budgets — no, four years of surpluses. It was extremely unpopular because it raised some taxes as well cut spending. It led to the defeat of many Democrats in both houses who voted for it, a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and a deep drop in the popularity of the president who pushed it, Bill Clinton.
Who was "playing politics" then? It was not those who did the unpopular thing and actually eliminated deficits.
You could separate the politicians and the statesmen by the same measure last week: those who did the painless thing and voted to defer deficit reduction to a later time and other people through a constitutional amendment, and those who wanted to take the hard stands and do it now themselves. The latter, by the way, does not describe Ross, Womack, Griffin and Crawford.