House GOP plans balanced-budget amendment next week

Members have introduced 14 balanced-budget amendments, but only one, H.J.Res. 2, has more than half the members of the House as co-sponsors. This proposal, from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has 241 co-sponsors, including about a dozen Democrats.

Goodlatte also has the second most popular balanced-budget amendment in  H.J.Res. 1, which has 133 co-sponsors. Both would prevent the federal government from spending more money than it takes in.

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However, H.J.Res. 1 is seen as tougher because it would also limit federal spending to 18 percent of U.S. GDP, and would prevent the government from taking in new tax revenue unless two-thirds of the House and Senate agree. In contrast, H.J.Res. 2 would allow federal revenue increases if a simple majority of Congress agrees.

As such, H.J.Res. 1 is more suited to Republicans looking for tough new spending limits, and is much more difficult for Democrats to support.

This distinction is critical, as it will take 290 House votes to approve any amendment to the Constitution. Knowing that H.J.Res. 2 can pick up some support from Democrats could give that proposal favored status as one that has some chance of passage.

But keeping Republicans in line is also an issue. Late last week, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) had tough words for the Republican majority, and said the GOP so far has not been able to cut spending significantly. He then asked that his name be stricken as a co-sponsor of H.J.Res. 2, although he is still a co-sponsor of the tougher version, H.J.Res. 1.

"There are different versions of a balanced-budget amendment," Gohmert said. "One has most of the things we hold dear, not only a requirement of balancing the budget, but also a cap to spending as a percentage of gross domestic product, and also an increased supermajority in order to pass any tax bills raising taxes.

"My concern has been that we had a wave election last November," he added. "We got over 80 new conservative freshmen, and we haven't cut spending like we should. I am more and more compelled that we need a cap on spending."

Also last week, a small group of Republicans led by Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) put forward their own proposal. That bill, H.J.Res. 84, would make a simple, one-sentence addition to the Constitution:

"The United States government may not increase its debt except for a specific purpose by law adopted by three-fourths of the membership of both houses of Congress."

McClintock argued that a simple approach is best because the Constitution should set forth general guidance that future legislators use to manage specific situations.

"The American Founders recognized Cicero's wisdom that 'the best laws are the simplest ones,' " he said. "And they realized that they couldn't possibly foresee the circumstances and conditions that may confront future generations, and therefore they resisted the temptation to micro-manage every decision that might be made centuries in the future.

"Instead, they set forth general principles of governance and erected a structure in which human nature itself would naturally guide future decisions to comport with those principles," McClintock added.

The Budget Control Act passed by Congress over the summer requires both the House and Senate to vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution by the end of the year. But unlike what many Republicans were looking for, the Budget Control Act did not condition further increases in the debt on passage of a balanced-budget amendment, and only requires votes to be held.