Published July 29, 2011
House Speaker John Boehner on Friday straddled the hurdle he needed to get his debt-reduction proposal passed, sweetening the pot for Tea Party Republicans with the pledge of a vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment.
But getting conservative Republicans on board is the easy part.
"You cannot have a scenario here where you tell -- where you say we have to amend the Constitution or default on America's obligations," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday. "This is not what the American people want."
A Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been debated for years, and while several Democrats currently in Congress have previously said over the years they would support it, the reality is a much harder slog.
"This Balanced Budget Amendment is a totally bad idea," said David Gans, director of human rights, civil rights and citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center.
Gans said Tea Party Republicans who love to cite the Founding Fathers to explain their principles have disregarded the fact that the Framers envisioned situations where the nation would occasionally need to borrow money, and that authority was deliberately included in the Constitution.
"The first powers that Congress gets in the Constitution are lay and collect taxes and pay the debts ... and second is borrow money on the credit of the United States," Gans said. "I think that cuts sharply against the idea that the Balanced Budget Amendment is something that we should sort of write into stone so it's not fixable ... If there's some sort of emergency we're sort of hamstrung."
Boehner's debt-reduction legislation, a two-part affair, included more than $900 billion in cuts over 10 years to go with a $900 billion increase in the debt ceiling. That amount should cover about six months in deficit spending by the U.S.
But any increase to the debt limit after that -- estimated to be about $1.6 trillion to avoid default through 2012 -- would require that "the archivist of the United States has submitted to the states for their ratification a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States pursuant to a joint resolution entitled 'Joint resolution proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution of the United States.'"
For House Republicans opposed to raising the debt ceiling, it was just the trick to get the ball rolling.
"By standing firm, we were able to get a bill that actually cuts federal spending now, caps future spending, and ensures a Balanced Budget Amendment passes Congress before the second increase is enacted," Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., said in a press release.
"A Balanced Budget Amendment will finally force Congress to live within its means just like families across the country do. This plan is not a Washington deal, but a real solution to fundamentally change the way Washington operates," Landry continued.
Others, including Republican Reps. Joe Walsh of Illinois and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, said that without it, they would not vote for the Boehner bill. They were heartened in their conditions by groups like the Club for Growth, which issued a statement from President Chris Chocola offering strong support for a Balanced Budget Amendment.
It "is the piece of the puzzle that puts us on a path to fiscal responsibility and fundamentally reforms our broken budget process," Chocola said.
But the fun stops there.
For a constitutional amendment to pass, it requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate and a three-quarters ratification from the states. It does not require the president's signature.
Assuming for a minute that the House and Senate could get the two-thirds vote, which Democrats will ensure doesn't happen, it's a big expectation that states would follow suit even though all but one -- Vermont -- has a balanced budget amendment in the state constitution.
Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Democrats will never go for a Balanced Budget Amendment the way House Republicans envision it because House Republicans not only want to balance the budget, they want the amendment to ensure that the size of government does not exceed 18 percent of gross domestic product.
"I don't favor including limiting the size of government with a Balanced Budget Amendment because they're completely different ideas," Biggs said. "The size of government is a different question than whether you have a balanced budget or not."
Biggs added that Republicans may be fine with having the government only be 18 percent of GDP, but it'd be a long shot to think Democrats are going to go along with that philosophy.
"That would be a nice little trick," he said. "No Democrat in the world is going to vote for that."
On the flip side, FreedomWorks, a Tea Party outlet, said it would not support the Boehner bill because it "doesn't state what the BBA must include."
Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and head of the American Action Forum, said he supports Congress getting the chance to demonstrate where they stand on the amendment, even if it goes nowhere.
"A Balanced Budget Amendment is an essential component to a long term budgetary solution and members of Congress should have the opportunity to vote for or against it. The reality, though, is that there simply aren't the votes in this Congress to pass it," Holtz-Eakin said.
That said, Holtz-Eakin warned in an online video that getting back to a resolution on the debt ceiling is critical, since not allowing it to rise gives the Treasury all the power to decide what gets paid.
As for handing over their authority, Gans said that's what lawmakers will end up doing if they pass a Balanced Budget Amendment. But, he warned, the authority won't go to the Treasury, it will go to the federal courts.
"Imagine creating a process where you not only have to go through a legislative battle, but a judicial one as well. Seems like a very poor idea," Gans said.
An amendment would be "putting demands on the judicial system that I think we should all be able to agree are not appropriate to our courts or our judicial system," he said. "It raises all sorts of difficult questions for judges, and really that's not their job or their expertise."