CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
Nov. 11, 2011 – 8:58 p.m.
Balanced Budget Pressure Rising
By Joseph J. Schatz, CQ Staff
The tea party–fueled push for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget will get its first real test this week, when House lawmakers cast ballots on the issue for the first time since the mid-1990s.
The amendment vote — mandated by the summer debt ceiling deal — is largely a sideshow to the deliberations of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. That’s because a constitutional change of this magnitude has little chance of garnering the required two-thirds supermajority in both chambers, much less ratification by the legislatures of a minimum of 38 states.
Still, the idea of a constitutional amendment retains political potency. Even with the White House and Democratic leaders opposing it, Democrats from moderate- and conservative-leaning districts will face pressure to vote “yes.” Under the debt ceiling law (PL 112-25), both chambers are required to take a balanced-budget amendment (BBA) vote before the end of the year, and Senate Republicans are also expected to use the issue to put vulnerable Democratic incumbents in an awkward spot.
Yet even conservatives are not unified on the issue. Elements of the conservative wing of the GOP are disappointed that the House Republican Conference is not bringing up a tough new version of the amendment (
Instead, the conference chose to advance a 1990s-style version of the amendment (
The amendment slated for floor consideration this week mirrors one that the House approved by the required two-thirds margin in 1995. But it was rejected in the Senate that year and again in 1996 and 1997. That was the last time either chamber voted on the issue.
Conservative Groups Want More
Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax group run by Grover Norquist, opposes that measure, arguing that without the higher threshold for tax increases, a constitutional balanced-budget amendment would open the door to higher taxes.
Groups such as the tea party–affiliated FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation, meanwhile, have been pushing conservatives to use the tougher proposal as way to build momentum for the issue. Brian Darling, a senior fellow at Heritage, calls the House Republican Conference’s decision a “pre-emptive surrender” that will hurt the movement over the long term and let fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats off the hook.
“Blue Dog Democrats who would not vote for the strong BBA can take cover with a vote for the soft BBA,” Darling argued. “This is a classic case of Republicans negotiating against themselves so they can call it a bipartisan BBA.”
Darling considers it ironic that the House GOP majority is embracing a less conservative proposal than its Senate counterpart. Every Senate Republican has endorsed a tougher amendment proposal that would cap federal spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product and create a two-thirds supermajority for revenue increases.
By choosing the 1990s version, House GOP leaders stand a greater chance of victory — or at least a strong bipartisan majority vote, even if it lacks the two-thirds majority needed to win.
Democrats in Awkward Position
Balanced Budget Pressure Rising
Regardless of the GOP’s intraparty squabbles, the balanced-budget issue has long split the Democratic Party and may put some Democrats in an awkward spot.
House Democratic leaders are blasting the proposal, saying it would “destroy jobs” and citing an analysis from a consulting firm, Macroeconomic Advisors, which predicts that if a balanced budget were mandated immediately, it would force $1.5 trillion in spending cuts and greatly increase unemployment.
Of the 242 lawmakers cosponsoring the Goodlatte proposal, 16 are Democrats.
Some Democrats have their own favored versions. Rep.
Udall has been in talks with Sen.
And, even if there were a two-thirds majority in both chambers for an amendment, it would still require ratification by three-quarters of the states, a process that would probably take years to accomplish.
David Primo, a senior scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, argues that no balanced-budget amendment proposal stands a chance this year. “Those who oppose spending restraint have done a great job using critiques of specific proposals to paint all constitutional budget rules as suspect,” he argues. “Meanwhile, those who support strong balanced-budget amendments have not been successful in dispelling those claims.”