Congress Votes on Balanced Budget Amendment

Even though the Super Committee is stealing the limelight, this summer's debt ceiling deal didn't just create the deficit-cutting committee. It also forces both the House and the Senate to vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. On Nov. 18, House leadership brought an amendment to the floor, where it failed to get the two-thirds vote necessary to pass. However, the close House vote and the impending Senate vote mean that this is not the end of the balanced budget amendment.

While conservative members of the House Republican caucus were in favor of a more restrictive version, leadership brought a "clean" balanced budget amendment to the floor, one without supermajority requirements for raising taxes, although a three-fifths majority vote would have been required to raise the debt ceiling. Leadership chose the clean version in an effort to win over House Democrats, since a constitutional amendment needs the support of two-thirds of each house. This equals 290 votes in the House, meaning at least 48 Democrats would have had to have voted to approve the amendment. In the end, only 25 Democrats voted for the amendment, and four Republicans voted against it.

The Nov. 18 vote produced far fewer "yes" votes than the last time a balanced budget amendment came up in the House. In 1995, a version of the amendment passed in that chamber, garnering 300 votes, 72 of them from Democrats. Much has been written about how, in recent elections, so-called Blue Dog (more conservative) Democrats have been replaced by Republicans, but this does not fully explain the difference between the most recent vote and previous attempts to pass the amendment.

Back in the 1990s, balanced budget amendments were seen by some as a tool of good government, sort of like a stronger version of PAYGO, which requires that certain budget actions have offsets. As a result, members of both parties supported the amendment (although a large majority of Democrats still opposed it).

However, Republicans have recently been attempting to use balanced budget amendments as a tool to advance their ideological goals. Newer versions have included limitations on government spending levels, supermajority requirements to raise taxes, and even higher hurdles for raising the debt ceiling. These new, more radical versions of the balanced budget amendment gained strong conservative support, with groups such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform coming out in favor of them.

A balanced budget amendment would make it more difficult for the government to react to changing economic conditions, as it requires a supermajority vote to engage in deficit spending. Deficit spending is an important tool for governments when crises occur, since it lets them spend money without raising taxes or cutting from other areas. A constitutional requirement to balance the federal budget curtails that power. For instance, the Recovery Act, which helped create or save millions of jobs, would not have passed the House if a balanced budget amendment was in effect.

[For more information on balanced budget amendments, see our resource page.]

Despite the demise of the most recent version of the amendment in the House, the Senate must still vote on a balanced budget amendment by the end of 2011 (several times in the past, the Senate has come within one vote of passing a balanced budget amendment). Senate leadership could bring a "liberal" version to the floor, with exceptions for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), for instance, has offered a balanced budget amendment that protects Social Security and prevents unpaid-for tax cuts for the rich. Such a proposal would likely have support from some Senate Democrats, but it would be rejected by Senate Republicans.

In the end, however, any version of the balanced budget amendment would be an unnecessary constraint on the authority and flexibility of future sessions of Congress and is thus best left in the dust bin of bad ideas.

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