U.S. House Thwarts Balanced-Budget Amendment to Constitution

A proposed constitutional amendment requiring the government to balance its budget was killed in the U.S. House yesterday, sparking an immediate effort to define the vote as a political plus or minus for Democrats.

Opposition from most House Democrats denied the measure the two-thirds majority required to send it to the Senate. With at least 284 votes needed for passage, 261 lawmakers supported the amendment and 165 voted against it.

“It’s unfortunate that Democrats still don’t recognize the urgency of stopping Washington’s job-crushing spending binge,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said in a statement after the vote.

Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, lauded the amendment’s defeat as “a win for working families.” He said in a statement that “congressional Democrats stood their ground and rejected the balanced-budget amendment and the deep cuts it would have made to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Among Democrats, 161 opposed the measure while 25 voted for it. Among Republicans, 236 supported it while 4 voted ‘no,’ including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He opposed the plan because it didn’t go far enough, he said in a statement. Ryan said he wanted provisions that would cap total government spending.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds majorities in the House and the Senate, and then backed by three-fourths of the 50 states.

Debt Accord

The House agreed to have the vote on the balanced-budget amendment as part of the deal Congress approved in August to raise the government’s debt limit.

Also created in that legislation was a congressional supercommittee charged with devising a plan by Nov. 23 to carve at least $1.2 trillion out of the budget over the next decade. The panel remains at odds over tax increases and cuts to the politically sensitive entitlement programs such as Medicare.

The Constitution has been amended just 27 times, though lawmakers have offered more than 11,000 proposals to alter it, according to congressional statistics.

Two amendments have been added in the past 40 years. A 1992 measure required that changes to lawmakers’ pay can’t take effect until their subsequent term in office, after an intervening election. In 1971, during the Vietnam War, the voting age was lowered to 18, matching the minimum age of eligibility for the military draft.

Three-Fifths Provision

The proposal rejected yesterday didn’t mean that lawmakers would always have to match federal spending with revenue. In an effort to win Democratic votes needed for approval, the chamber’s Republican majority agreed to allow deficit-financed spending if approved by three-fifths votes.

The proposal also mandated that presidential budget requests to Congress be balanced, and that debt-limit increases be approved by three-fifths votes.

The bill was similar to an amendment that nearly won congressional approval in 1995, passing the House and falling one vote short in the Senate. Though House Republicans have a bigger majority now than they did then, the number of fiscally conservative Democrats has declined.

Spending Addiction

Republican Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, in a floor speech yesterday urging the amendment’s passage, told his colleagues “this body is hopelessly addicted to excessive spending and budget deficits -- hopelessly.” He added: “It’s time that we do something” to stem that.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, led the debate against the amendment, saying said it would require major cuts in important programs. “This is a dagger pointed at the heart of Social Security and Medicare and veterans’ benefits,” he said.

Democrats backing the measure included Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

“There’s an infinite capacity in this Congress to kick the can down the road,” he said “We’re going to have to force people to make tough choices -- that’s the conclusion I came to” in backing the amendment.

Though nearly all state governments must balance their budgets, many economists are skeptical of imposing a similar requirement on Congress. That’s because tax revenue automatically falls during recessions, while spending on unemployment assistance, food stamps and other benefits climbs, which economists say helps to mitigate downturns. Economists refer to those as “automatic stabilizers.”

‘Less Stable’ Economy

Taking the stabilizers “away at the federal level risks making the economy less stable, risks exacerbating the swings in business cycles,” Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf told a congressional panel in January.

Some Democrats opposing the amendment argued that political will -- not a change to the Constitution -- is what is required for a balanced federal budget.

“A constitutional amendment is not a path to a balanced budget -- it is only an excuse for members of this body failing to cast votes to achieve one,” said Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat.

The most recent fiscal plan approved by the House, crafted by Ryan, wouldn’t erase the deficit until 2040.

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