Balanced-budget amendment comes up short in House vote

A proposal to add a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution fell short in the House on Friday, dealing a defeat to Republicans and conservative Democrats who have long championed the effort.

The House voted 261-165 for the amendment — a clear majority, but well short of the two-thirds needed to send the amendment to the states for ratification. The amendment was supported by 236 Republicans and 25 Democrats, while four Republicans and 161 Democrats opposed it. 

In the most surprising defection, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the architect of the House Republican budget, voted against the amendment, citing its lack of a provision requiring a two-thirds majority for future tax increases. 

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While a similar bill cleared the House in 1995 with 300 votes, most Democrats came out against the bill in recent days, with many pointing to the late 1990s as evidence that the budget can be balanced without a constitutional requirement. 

Two members of the House Democratic leadership, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Assistant Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), voted against the measure on Friday after supporting a similar version 16 years ago. The amendment earned 72 Democratic votes in 1995.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who cast a rare vote in support of the measure, blamed Democrats for the defeat. Speakers traditionally vote only on particularly significant legislation.

“It’s unfortunate that Democrats still don’t recognize the urgency of stopping Washington’s job-crushing spending binge,” Boehner said in a statement. “And it’s disappointing that a president who says ‘we can’t wait’ to take action on jobs is doing just that: waiting, riding things out until the election, and skipping opportunities to work together with Republicans to create a better environment for job growth.”

Coming at a moment when Washington is consumed with the faltering deficit supercommittee, the result represents a quiet end for a measure that GOP leaders had adopted as a top priority when they struck a debt-limit deal to avert a national default in August.

At the urging of conservatives, Republicans had insisted that a balanced-budget amendment receive a vote in both the House and Senate as part of the agreement. They had hoped to use the intervening months to build public support and momentum for the amendment, which many conservatives have likened to a silver bullet to fix the nation’s long-term fiscal woes.

But GOP leaders struggled to unite their conference around a strategy. Many lawmakers pushed to hold a vote on a more conservative version of the amendment, which included a federal spending cap and the provision requiring a supermajority vote for tax increases. The majority of the conference ultimately favored bringing a more simple amendment to the vote, recognizing that it stood the better chance of passing.

Hoyer said Thursday that the earlier success in balancing the budget prompted him to oppose the amendment this time around, though he supported the proposal in 1995.

"We made it happen not with a balanced-budget amendment but because we had the will to do so — and by following pay-go rules," Hoyer said, referring to rules that require the cost of legislation to be paid for. Hoyer argued Thursday and Friday that much of the blame for the deficit should fall on Republicans who abandoned the "pay-go" principle when taking over Congress.

The 25 Democrats who voted yes on Friday were mostly fiscally conservative Blue Dogs, who endorsed the measure earlier in the week over the objections of the party leadership.

“I think it was the wrong vote. People should have voted for it,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a co-chairman of the Blue Dog coalition. “I think it’s what the country wants, and so obviously I’m disappointed by the vote.”

Besides Ryan, the other notable GOP defection was House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.), who also cited the surpluses of the 1990s as a reason why the amendment wasn’t needed. "What I found ... is that we were able to balance the federal budget without touching that inspired document, the U.S. Constitution," he said.

The other two Republicans voting against the amendment were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), and Louie Gohmert (Texas).

Gohmert complained repeatedly this week that Republicans were looking at a tougher proposal but abandoned this language because only one Democrat supported it.

Ryan said he was worried that the version of the amendment considered by the House could open the door to more taxes, rather than reduced spending, to balance the budget.

"Spending is the problem, yet this version of the [amendment] makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow, and economic freedom will be diminished," Ryan said. "Without a limit on government spending, I cannot support this amendment."

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said earlier this week that a survey of Republican members found they "overwhelmingly" wanted to vote on the amendment without the tax requirement. He added that he personally would have preferred to vote on the more conservative version.

The two parties pointed fingers at each for the federal deficit during two days of testy debate on the amendment. On Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said President Clinton "put us on the trajectory" for budget surpluses only to have them squandered by President George W. Bush.

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Republicans rejected that as revisionist history. In one exchange, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the sponsor of the amendment, criticized Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) for arguing that Clinton balanced the budget by raising taxes. Goodlatte said Clinton was forced to sign the GOP balanced budgets of the 1990s only after the government shut down.

"After that shutdown, then and only then did President Clinton get in favor of welfare reform and other things that led to a slowing of the rate of growth of government spending," Goodlatte said. "The gentleman from Virginia, my good friend, voted against all four, all four of the budgets that were balanced in the 1990s and leading up to 2001."

In Friday debate, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) accused Republicans of purposefully creating the deficit in order to shut down social programs they don't like. 

"The reason this country is in such deficit, is because of a deliberate Republican crusade over the last 30 years to reduce taxes on the rich in order deliberately to create huge deficits, and to then use those deficits as the excuse to justify large cuts to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and education programs that they have never liked in the first place, but could not justify cutting without it," he said. 

Goodlatte rejected that by noting that Democrats extended the Bush-era tax cuts last year when they controlled the House, Senate and White House.

Democrats also offered several technical arguments against the balanced-budget amendment. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) said an amendment could leave congressional budget decisions open to judicial scrutiny when budgets don't balance and could put the Judicial Branch in a position of having to dictate spending decisions to Congress. Others said requiring a balanced budget would make it harder for the government to respond to emergencies.

But Republicans argued that a constitutional requirement is needed to force Congress to balance budgets, given that Congress has only put forward a handful of balanced budgets over the last half century.

"How can we stand up and look at people and say this Congress can fix it on its own?" Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) asked. "How can we look at people in the eye and say, you know what, just give us another chance, we've done so well over the last 30 years? 

That agreement also requires a Senate vote on an amendment, although Democrats have yet to schedule one. With the House failure, the Senate vote is likely to be anti-climactic. 

The failed House vote has little impact on the immediate efforts of Congress to reduce the deficit, as even passage by the House and Senate would start a process of getting three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment, which could take years. The amendment would have given the states seven years to ratify it and required the federal budget to be balanced five years after ratification.