The addition of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution is kind of the “Holy Grail” in American politics. An elusive goal, it is nevertheless something a large majority of the country supports in the belief that it will somehow put an end to the cycle of tax and spend, spend and tax that has defined much of the last forty years.
The last time such an amendment was seriously considered, back in 1995, it failed to pass by one vote in the United States Senate. Thanks to the agreement congressional Republicans cut with President Barack Obama over the increase in the federal debt ceiling, as part of the pressure applied by advocates of the “Cut, Cap and Balance” approach, it’s coming up for a vote once again.
It’s not going to be easy to get it through Congress. Unlike most pieces of legislation, a constitutional amendment needs the approval of two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate before it can be sent to the states for ratification. But this is only the beginning of the problem.
Republicans, who are currently more likely to back the amendment than Democrats, are divided over which amendment should be offered when it comes up for a vote in the House sometime this week. All 47 GOP senators and most of the coalition groups whose support is needed to flood Capitol Hill with affirmative messages are for what is called the “strong BBA” — a measure that includes provisions to limit the Congress’s ability to tax and spend. The House, on the other hand, seems to favor the “clean” or “historic” version of the amendment, which only requires that the budget be balanced.
The “clean” version, however, splits the coalition. There are those who think the political imperative right now is to show as many votes in favor of a balanced budget amendment as possible in order to build towards its eventual passage. And there are, obviously, more members of the House who are willing to vote for the weaker version than for the more robust version.