As part of what appeared to be a desperate cry for help with their addiction to spending other people’s money, a group of Senate Republicans requested Wednesday that Congress assist them in kicking the habit by passing a strict balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Led by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the amendment would cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, require Congress to take measures to meet a budget, and force the president to submit a balanced budget except in times of war.
Senate Republicans said Wednesday that without a rule requiring them to balance the budget, they would never be able to bring themselves to do it on their own.
“If you don’t have this kind of fiscal discipline, you’ll never get there,” Hatch said. “We’re worse than addicts.”
Hatch forced a vote on a similar amendment in 1997 and got 66 Senators to support it, one vote shy of the 67 required to pass it onto the states. Each attempt since then, and there have been many, has failed.
Hatch said he had no confidence that Republicans would succeed at balancing the federal budget even if they held majorities in both chambers of Congress and controlled the White House. When Republicans did control the federal government for a period during the Bush era, deficits increased.
“This is needed no matter who’s in charge,” Hatch said.
The other members who joined Hatch, including Nevada Sen. John Ensign, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, also showed little faith in their collective capability to spend no more than what they had.
“We have to be forced to do the jobs that we should do on our own, which we haven’t shown the political courage to do,” Ensign said. “Republican and Democrat governors across the country are making these kinds of touch decisions at the state level. Why? Because they’re being forced to. We need to be forced to, and the only way to have that discipline is to have a constitutional balanced budget amendment passed by the House, the Senate and the states.”
Every state government except Vermont requires the legislature and the governor to balance the budget annually.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, each senator took turns telling their own stories of what it was like to suffer from a spending addiction, and agreed the only way to get clean was through blunt force. Like an after-school special, there were even testimonials from senators who had survived the politically treacherous waters of once balancing a government checkbook.
“The balance budget requirement allowed me to just say no,” Isakson said, referring to his 17 years balancing the books as a member of the Georgia state legislature. “It’s great to have a discipline that imposes on you the discipline you need to just say no and back away.”
The Congressional Budget Office released an estimate this week that the federal government is set to spend a record $1.5 trillion this fiscal year, and if policies do not change, the federal deficit would grow to 77 percent of GDP over the next ten years. The U.S. debt limit currently stands at $14.3 trillion and the Congress must raise it even more within the next few months to avoid defaulting on loans.
Democratic leaders, who have offered their own solutions to the budget problem, provided little indication that the Republican proposal would receive nearly enough bipartisan support required to pass the ratification process. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress and approval from three-fourths of the state legislatures to be ratified.
“I think probably the consensus position is that if you can balance your budget, let’s do it right here, right now,” said Maryland Democrat Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking members of the House Budget Committee. “The most serious approach I believe to dealing with this problem is to get together on a bipartisan basis and put together a long term plan rather than pretending that these things that are full of all kinds of loopholes will do the job.”
Even if the proposal were to pass the House, which it foreseeably could given the wide Republican majority, a balanced budget amendment would face a much tougher audience in the Senate. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second highest ranking Democrat, said he had his doubts.
“I’m just not one of those people who races to amend the Constitution. Taking a roller to a Rembrandt is never been my goal while serving in Congress,” Durbin said. “There are people who see a need for a constitutional amendment on a regular basis and I’m not one of them. I’m skeptical of that approach.”