Last Updated:November 26 @ 10:39 pm

Senate rejects 2 balanced budget amendments

By Jim Abrams

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Wednesday voted against changing the Constitution to require a balanced budget as Congress hit yet another dead end in its search for a way out of its fiscal morass.

Two proposals for balanced budget amendments were doomed by the partisanship that dominates Congress. All but one Republican voted against a Democratic measure, and every Democrat opposed the GOP-backed version. Amendments to the Constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of state legislatures.

With the votes, Congress fulfilled a commitment to take up balanced budget amendments that were part of the agreement last summer to raise the government's debt limit in exchange for $2 trillion in future spending cuts.

The House held its vote last month, falling 23 votes short of reaching the two-thirds majority.

Last month also marked the failure of the supercommittee, another product of the debt limit agreement, to come up with a course of action for making inroads into $1 trillion-a-year deficits and a national debt that has topped $15 billion.

Other efforts this year to "go big" on deficit reduction, including talks between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner and a bipartisan commission led by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wy., and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, also proved futile.

The inability of the 12-member bipartisan supercommittee to come up with a long-term deficit cutting plan reinforced the argument that only a balanced budget amendment could save Congress from its overspending habits.

"The only way that Congress will exercise the discipline to balance the budget is if the Constitution forces it to do so," said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

But opponents, led by Democrats and including the White House, said a balanced budget requirement could lead to drastic cuts to social programs when a poor economy reduces federal revenues and that Congress could end up ceding budget decisions to unelected federal judges if lawmakers can't agree over how to reach balance.

"I believe it would be a profound mistake for this country," said Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "I believe adopting this amendment would have and could have disastrous consequences for the economy and for the future strength of this nation."

Democrats were particularly critical of the Republican plan, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that required a two-thirds majority of both chambers to raise taxes, three-fifths to raise the national debt, and stated that spending for any budget year could not exceed 18 percent of gross domestic product. Senate Budget Committee Democrats said federal spending hasn't fallen below 18 percent of GDP since 1966.

Hatch replied that "the votes we cast today will tell the American people whether we honestly acknowledge the fiscal crisis posed by a $15 trillion national debt and whether we are serious" about finding a cure." Congress "will not kick its overspending addiction alone," he said. "Congress needs some help, and the Constitution is the way to get that help."

The vote for the Hatch proposal was strictly along party lines, with 53 Democrats opposing it and 47 Republicans in support.

The vote for the Democratic measure, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Col., was more lopsided, with only 20 Democrats and one Republican, Dean Heller of Nevada, voting for it.

Udall said he hoped his proposal would raise awareness among his colleagues "about the very serious consequences of government spending without accountability."

Udall's approach differed from Hatch's in that it had no caps on spending, did not require a supermajority to raise taxes, prohibited Social Security funds from being used to balance the rest of the budget and barred millionaires from getting tax cuts unless the budget was in surplus. Both provided for waivers in times of war and national emergencies.

While the president does not have a role in advancing constitutional amendments, the White House issued statements opposing both proposals. It said that instead of amending the Constitution members of both parties should "move beyond politics as usual and find bipartisan common ground to restore us to a sustainable fiscal path." It also warned that an amendment could also result in the hard decisions lawmakers should be making being handed to the federal courts.

The Senate came within one vote of approving a balanced budget twice in the 1990s, but it hasn't taken up the issue since the last vote in 1997.

Including the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, the last time in 1992 with an amendment concerning congressional pay increases.

Forty-nine states — all but Vermont — have some form of balanced budget requirement. These generally apply only to operating budgets, allowing states to borrow for long-term capital investments. Cuts to the federal spending resulting from a balanced budget mandate could reduce federal grants to the states, making it harder for them to meet their budget goals.

The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.

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5 Comments

  1. DekkfishComment by Susand
    December 14, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    It is my understanding that Clinton’s administration used aledged surpluses in social security to balance the budget, while admitting that the SS program is itself already paying out more than is being paid in. Borrowing money to pay a debt, whether from SS or from a foreign government (can you say China?), does not balance the budget. It merely postpones the inevitable financial meltdown. Raising taxes, or otherwise increasing revenue, without requiring cuts in spending will not work because the tendency is to pay for more programs instead of reducing already accumulated debt. The only way to solve this debt crisis is to reign in government spending. The only way that is going to happen is to have a balanced budget requirement, and that said requirement cannot be waived – hence, the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution is absolutely necessary.

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    • MorganComment by Morgan
      December 17, 2011 @ 11:34 am

      Knowing how our Congress works, even if we had a balanced budget amendment,they would find a way around it.

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  2. thedoveComment by thedove
    December 14, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    I’m not sure a balanced budget requirement is the way to go.  For one thing, liberals are no strangers to ways around the Constitution, and there are so many examples from this administration alone (although it isn’t the first time, others have done it as well) there’s no point in trying to list them.  That said, my main objection is that a requirement to balance the budget would provide a future Congress in which both houses are controlled by Democrats and Rinos a ready excuse to increase taxes.  “There is no unnecessary spending in this proposed budget, nothing that can be cut or eliminated, we’ve already done that.  Therefore, the only way we can balance the budget as required by the Constitution is by raising taxes.  We don’t want to, but it’s mandated by the Constitution.”

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    • DekkfishComment by Susand
      December 14, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

      That is why the Republican-sponsored Senate bill included the clause about a 2/3 majority vote being necessary for taxes to be raised. It is a rare congress, and an even rarer senate, that has a 2/3 supermajority (67 senators and 300+ congresspersons), so this would pretty much force the majority to consider the minority. There is plenty of unnecessary spending, on top of unconstitutional spending being labeled as necessary, that can be cut, if we can just get the leeches out of office and replaced with people who will actually work in the best interests of the people.

      Having said that, the balanced budget amendment needs to be coupled with an amendment on term limits in order to be truly affective.

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  3. oldtimer1933Comment by oldtimer1933
    December 15, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    Much of government ‘spending’ is not really spending anyway, but ‘giving away’ after confiscation or borrowing, and primarily to buy votes for the politicians who support the give aways.

    Most of us who studied our history know quite well that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were designed to protect us from ‘government’, but when those in government have wanted their own way to increase their own power or re-election chances they have done as they pleased — and a new amendment probably won’t change that BUT will inject the Federal Courts into the ‘budgetary’ arrangement — and I don’t believe that will make tinngs better at all, but will probably have the opposite effect.

    I guess there is someplace IN THE CONSTITUTION that says ‘government’ has the authority to give away money from the Treasury, but my American Government professor disagreed. If the circumstances of Congressman Crockett’s ‘Not yours to give’ speech is accurate, then ALREADY many politicians had felt they didn’t have to pay attention to any part of the Constitution that got in the way of their ‘benevolence’ with other people’s money and eventually they included almost any means imaginable to get votes or contributions and/or enhance the investments of their families and cronies.

    I remember the remark by Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC6) who reportedly said to a Federal Judge, “There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that the federal government has anything to do with most of the stuff we do.” And then he essentially asked “What in the Constitution PROHIBITS us from doing..(anything we want)?” (He could begin with Amendments 9 and 10)

    Of course, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not limit its power either — back in 1803 (Marbury v. Madison).

    And there have been ‘appointments’ by the Executive Branch that bypass the oversight of Congress BUT gives great power to those appointees.

    So, who DOES have the power to limit what ‘government’ does — in actuality? WE THE PEOPLE, USUALLY ONLY AT ELECTION TIME — yet ‘bribes’ called ‘assistance’ and corruption have considerably tainted that resource.

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