WASHINGTON — With the federal government racking up deficits of more than $1 trillion a year and lawmakers paralyzed by political differences, the House on Thursday is taking up a proposed constitutional amendment that would force Congress to balance its budget.
The amendment, requiring that spending not exceed revenues in any given fiscal year, is essentially the same as one proposed the last time Republicans regained control of the House, in 1995. At that time it passed, with 72 Democrats joining 228 Republicans in voting yes. The measure fell just one vote short of getting the needed two-thirds majority in the Senate.
This time there are 242 Republicans, 12 more than in 1995, and only 48 Democrats are needed to come up with a two-thirds margin, but the outcome of the vote on Friday is far from certain.
The Democratic leadership is actively urging its members to vote against the amendment and the White House has come out strongly against it. Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, who voted for the measure in 1995, is leading the effort to defeat it this time.
Hoyer said that in 1995 he didn’t “contemplate the irresponsibility that I have seen fiscally” during the George W. Bush administration and in more recent months when “Republicans took America to the brink of default” over raising the debt ceiling.
He said the failure to pay for tax cuts and wars over the past 16 years led to “a substantial erosion in my own confidence of the willingness of the other party to respond on a responsible path” to a balanced budget.
Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the chief sponsor of the measure, said Americans “understand what it means to live within their means and they expect nothing less from the federal government. A balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is the only way to ensure that Congress curtails its spending on an annual basis.”
The amendment is “the one thing that can absolutely change how things are done here in Washington,” Rick Berg, R-N.D., said Thursday at a news conference of 16 GOP freshmen supporters.
The balanced budget vote comes as the bipartisan debt supercommittee struggles to come up with at least $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade. The debt ceiling agreement reached last summer both formed the supercommittee and required that the House and Senate vote on a balanced budget amendment.
To attract Democrats, Republicans opted for the Goodlatte version which does not, as many conservatives wanted, set a tight cap on government spending or require a supermajority to raise taxes. It does require a three-fifths vote by both chambers to raise the debt ceiling and a three-fifths vote to approve a deficit in any one year. Congress can also waive the amendment in times of serious military conflict.
The amendment does have the overall support of the so-called Blue Dogs, a 25-member group of fiscally conservative Democrats. “If it does not pass both the House and the Senate,” said Blue Dog leader Mike Ross, D-Ark., “it speaks volumes about the dysfunction of the Congress.”
But other Democrats pointed to dire predictions of what could happen if a balanced budget amendment were in effect. Some 275 labor and other mostly liberal groups wrote a letter to lawmakers saying that forced spending cuts or raised taxes needed to balance the budget when the economy is slow “would risk tipping a faltering economy into recession or worsening an ongoing downturn, costing large number of jobs.”
Democrats also cited a report by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimating that, if there is not an increase in revenues, the amendment could force Congress to cut all programs by an average of 17.3 percent by 2018. It said that would mean hundreds of billions in cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The amendment would not go into effect until 2017, or two years after it is ratified, whichever comes later, and supporters say that would give Congress time to avoid dramatic spending cuts. A constitutional amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
Another issue of contention is how the amendment would be enforced. Neil Kinkopf, a law professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, said in a report he wrote for the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy that there could be “catastrophic consequences” if Congress fails to resolve disputes over how to reach balance.
“This would mean judges would be required to order either spending cuts or tax increases. This prospect is so troubling that it has justly alarmed commentators across the political spectrum.”
GOP freshman Berg argued that the ultimate source of enforcement, if Congress failed to act, would be voters. “Every two years the enforcement is at the polls.”