If the Treasury Department's right, the next two weeks will be a countdown to a first-of-its-kind economic crisis, with the credit rating of the United States depending on whether Congress raises the debt limit. Republicans want to spend that time debating a balanced budget amendment.
"Republicans will spend the next two weeks fighting for the one thing that will ensure that Washington gets its house in order," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor quickly confirmed that, announcing that Republicans would return next week to vote on, and pass, the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" bill, which locks in a balanced budget amendment in any deal to raise the debt limit.
Was that too subtle? No worries. Rep. Jim Jordan, who leads the Republican Study Committee that originated the "Cut, Cap, and Balance" plan, proclaimed that the amendment had to pass "if we are to preserve America's AAA credit rating and grow the economy." The RSC then sent reporters the 1982 speech in which Ronald Reagan endorsed the amendment, bestowing on it the immaculate touch of Republican politics.
So on Tuesday we'll start a new debate over something that had been buried with a one-vote defeat in the Senate 1997, forgotten by 1998, and remembered mostly as one of the old Contract With America items that never made it into law. The Balanced Budget Amendment wasn't even part of the GOP's 2010 Pledge to America. Why is it making a comeback now? Can it even pass?
The first question answers the second. Balanced Budget Amendment 1.0 got a vote after years of debating and organizing. Version 2.0 has emerged, quick-and-dirty, as one of the most popular items in the GOP's emergency response to the debt. It polls in the 70s. But the current version is different from the 1990s version—and the difference makes passage in the Senate impossible. You can compare the two versions here. The biggest changes are an iron ceiling on spending and a supermajority requirement for tax hikes, spelled out like this:
Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed 18 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States for the calendar year ending before the beginning of such fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific amount in excess of such 18 percent by a roll call vote.
That wasn't in the old amendment. By using vaguer language, the Republicans of 1997 assuaged their own worry about a balanced budget amendment—mandatory tax hikes—but they also allowed Democrats to fret about entitlement cuts. It obviously didn't save the amendment. "Congress would be required to raid the Social Security trust funds to run the government," warned then-Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. Democrats even proposed their own version, with a rider about how entitlements couldn't be touched by the scythe, just to make their point.
That's not possible with the new version. The only way to bring government spending under that cap is to cut entitlements. And this is why this year's model, at least in the form that it will be voted on next week, doesn't have a chance. Republicans have promoted it with a PR offensive whose purpose is to batter Democrats on a political winner, not to bring them in line. The Club for Growth has put together a video compilation of Democrats voicing support for the old balanced budget amendment, or for the concept, and the Senate GOP has unloaded the same quotes and videos.
Perhaps that's as far as this can go. In his Friday press conference, asked whether he could support any balanced budget amendment, President Obama gave the standard answer: "We don't need a constitutional amendment to do our jobs." There are only four Democrats still in the Senate who voted for the previous version of the amendment, and one of them, Mary Landrieu, gave me the same line as Obama.
But let's step aside from the pure politics. Let's even dodge the question, for now, of whether this is a good idea. (Dahlia Lithwick and Douglas Kendall have more on that.) If Republicans wanted to turn this into a real debate over a bill that could pass, could they? Yes. Rep. John Larson, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, admitted as much. "Go back to the 1995 balanced budget amendment," he told the Washington Post, "and you'd get a lot of Democratic votes."
And you would! Sen. Joe Lieberman voted against the amendment in the 1990s, but when I asked him about it this week, the retiring, independent senator said, "I'd like to vote for a balanced budget amendment."
"We can argue about the percentage," he said, "but that's moving in the right direction. I think the percentage should be higher—we can limit the spending to 20.6 percent of GDP, which is what we do in the spending cap plan I've signed on to."Lieberman's not alone. Other Democrats have signed on to that plan. If they can strip the starve-the-beast aspect away from a balanced budget amendment, they can support it. Right now, even the most conservative senators who back the amendment say they'd be willing to tweak it.
"If we can get a balanced budget amendment," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., "and there's a little movement on the exact rate, I think we can work with our colleagues to get it done. And then we'll come back another day." Said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who's becoming the unofficial leader of the Senate's strict constructionists: "There are elements of it that are open to negotiation. It doesn't have to be this one, exactly."
If it doesn't, what's the point of the vote on this doomed version? Pay attention: That's all about the politics of calling the other party reckless, and hoping no one looks at the details. If the Balanced Budget Amendment survives next week's frivolous vote, you'll know whether Republicans are serious.