Balanced budget vote triggers debate over spending in Washington

Some call effort political ‘stunt’ while others say measure needed to instill fiscal discipline.

Here’s a quick way to cause howls of ridicule among fiscal deficit hawks: Pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut, follow it up with a $1.3 trillion spending bill and then vote on a bill calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution.

That’s just what the House of Representatives did last week, voting 233-184 on a bill that fell short of the two–thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment.

Even in the House, there were plenty of people who believed the vote was for show.

“I think the American people can see through this,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who voted against the spending bill but for the tax cuts. “The time to have real political courage and do the right thing was four weeks ago (During debate on the spending bill). That’s when we needed to control spending.”

Deficit hawks echoed Jordan’s criticism.

“This is what happens when you go on a bender and say, ‘never again, I’m not going to touch a drop,’” said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonprofit focused on fiscal responsibility. “I have ceased to take these things seriously, and this one was just particularly bizarre.”

“It’s a political stunt,” added Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, who called the vote “the epitome of hypocrisy.”

Arguments for

But the measure does have its ardent backers. The House last voted for a balanced budget amendment in 2011 but fell far short of the two-thirds needed to sendit to the states for ratification. A similar effort stalled in the Senate in 1995.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he supports the idea of an amendment to balance the budget, saying, “If you don’t have the balanced budget discipline, it’s very hard to see how the federal budget problems are able to be solved.”

Portman supported both the tax cut last year and the spending bill last month.

Four Ohioans — Republican Reps. Steve Chabot of Cincinnati, Michael Turner of Dayton, Bob Latta of Bowling Green and Steve Stivers of Upper Arlington — co-sponsored the amendment. Stivers applauded the House’s decision to take it up, saying “it is clear that this legislation is needed now more than ever.”

“The reason to hold the vote is to see who’s yes and who’s no,” he said. “We need to know who to work on if we’re going to get to two–thirds.”

But Stivers also supported both the tax bill and the spending bill. He said he believes the former will make the economy grow and bring more revenue into federal coffers. He said he backed the spending bill because of the defense spending.

“The military is under-resourced like no time since the Vietnam War,” he said.

Arguments against

Democrats scoffed at the reasoning given by Republicans for backing the amendment now. The legislation called for adding a rule to the Constitution requiring federal spending not to exceed federal receipts, basically making it unconstitutional for the federal government to run budget deficits.

“It’s sort of interesting that because the majority party blew a hole in the budget, they’ve gotta go back and say, ‘let’s do a Balanced Budget constitutional amendment so we don’t do bad things any more,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said at a National Press Club event last week. “Really? ‘Stop us from doing this. We won’t stop ourselves.’”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who launched his 2016 presidential campaign in part by pushing for a Balanced Budget Amendment, shared that skepticism.

“It’s better to do it than not do it, but what’s the point? It’s not going to pass,” he said. “I just hope that it’s based on sincerity and not an attempt to cover your tracks.”

Kasich said when he launched his “Balanced Budget Forever” plan in December 2014, the idea was to spur states to call for the amendment. “We felt as we got closer and closer to that that Congress might see fit to act on their own,” he said, adding he’d be “thrilled” if Congress passed the amendment but “I don’t believe it’s going to happen.”

“The real situation is you can’t be spending all of this money,” he said, referring to the spending bill. “It leaves you questioning, ‘Why are they passing this if they just passed this inflated spending bill along with very little savings in tax reform? What is the point of this?”

Other ideas

Deficit hawks say Congress should instead make a consistent commitment to fiscal responsibility, such as a statutory requirement to reduce expenditures or an examination of the main drivers of the deficit and debt: entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

The Concord Coalition’s Bixby said his biggest concern is that the deficit is growing faster than the economy, making it “ultimately unsustainable.”

But some question whether a balanced budget amendment is the correct instrument to rein in spending.

Kirkegaard, whose institute bills itself as non-partisan, argued that mandating a balanced budget would make it difficult to do the stimulus spending to prevent economic downturns from being even worse.

“That would mean any future downturn would be more severe than necessary, and it would basically throw more people out of work,” he said. “I think it is a uniformly bad idea.”

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