The GOP Dilemma on the Vote for a Balanced Budget Amendment

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.

But, as neither version really has a chance of passing with the required two-thirds vote, critics of this analysis say that offering up the historic version amounts to throwing away the vote, giving members who do not really believe in the need for any kind of amendment to vote “for” one without having to deal with the consequences of casting a vote in favor of tax or spending limitation -- especially when all the GOP senators are already on record as supporting the other version.

From a policy standpoint the so-called “clean” BBA is equally flawed. One major concern about it is that it may allow for judges to order legislative bodies to raise taxes in the event the budget is out of balance in order to satisfy the requirement that revenue equals expenditures. The strong version contains language providing protection against that possibility.

There are groups that will and do support the “clean” version because they want to see an amendment added to the Constitution.  There are others, however, that have taken the position amending the Constitution to add the “clean” version is not only foolhardy but would actually do more potential harm than having no amendment at all. Since neither version currently has the votes to pass, the policy concerns take something of a backseat to the political concerns, which leaves people scratching their heads over the seeming unwillingness of the GOP House leadership to stick with the tougher language, the version that separates the men and women from the boys and the girls.