All Balanced Budget Amendments Are Not Created Equal

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 11 2011 1:13 PM

All Balanced Budget Amendments Are Not Created Equal

Kudos to the Club for Growth: Whatever they didn't paid the interns* who combed C-Span for video of 20 Democratic senators coming out for a balanced budget amendment, it wasn't enough.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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It's good editing, but it's misleading. Many of these Democrats voted for a different version of the BBA. How different? It's important to know this, because the reintroduction of the BBA is currently on the schedule for next week I'll post the text of the 1995 version, which almost passed, and the text of the current version that Democrats reject.

Here was the 1995 version.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years after the date of its submission to the States for ratification: 

Article--     

SECTION 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a rollcall vote.     

SECTION 2. The limit on the debt of the United States held by the public shall not be increased, unless three-fifths of the whole number of each House shall provide by law for such an increase by a roll call vote.     

SECTION 3. Prior to each fiscal year, the President shall transmit to the Congress a proposed budget for the United States Government for that fiscal year in which total outlays do not exceed total receipts.     

SECTION 4. No bill to increase revenue shall become law unless approved by a majority of the whole number of each House by a rollcall vote.    

SECTION 5. The Congress may waive the provisions of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war is in effect. The provisions of this article may be waived for any fiscal year in which the United States is engaged in military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so declared by a joint resolution, adopted by a majority of the whole number of each House, which becomes law.     

SECTION 6. The Congress shall enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation, which may rely on estimates of outlays and receipts.     

SECTION 7. Total receipts shall include all receipts of the United States Government except those derived from borrowing. Total outlays shall include all outlays of the United States Government except for those for repayment of debt principal.     

SECTION 8. This article shall take effect beginning with fiscal year 2002 or with the second fiscal year beginning after its ratification, whichever is later.

Now, here's the 2011 version. I've bolded the major changes and I'll jump in to make comments.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled (two-thirds of each House concurring therein), That the following article is proposed as an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the Constitution when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States: 
Article--
Section 1. Total outlays for any fiscal year shall not exceed total receipts for that fiscal year, unless two-thirds of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide by law for a specific excess of outlays over receipts by a roll call vote.     

See that? The requirement has been raised from 60 to 67 senators, and from 261 to 290 members of the House.

Section 2. 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.     
Section 3. Prior to each fiscal year, the President shall transmit to the Congress a proposed budget for the United States Government for that fiscal year in which--
(1) total outlays do not exceed total receipts;
(2) total outlays do 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.      and

That cap is new, and it would demand massive cuts. According to the CBO's analysis of the Ryan budget, the cut-back of Medicare would allow the government to hit this target within a decade. You can avoid such massive reforms and cuts if you don't have an 18 percent cap, as in the 1995 bill.

Section 4. Any bill that imposes a new tax or increases the statutory rate of any tax or the aggregate amount of revenue may pass only by a two-thirds majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote. For the purpose of determining any increase in revenue under this section, there shall be excluded any increase resulting from the lowering of the statutory rate of any tax.     

This is the real sticking point. Right now, constitutionally, the only acts that require 2/3 supermajorities are veto overrides, impeachment, and treaty confirmations in the Senate. What's the last federal tax increase that got a supermajority vote?

Section 5. The limit on the debt of the United States shall not be increased, unless three-fifths of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide for such an increase by a roll call vote.     

Nothing new.

Section 6. The Congress may waive the provisions of sections 1, 2, 3, and 5 of this article for any fiscal year in which a declaration of war against a nation-state is in effect and in which a majority of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress shall provide for a specific excess by a roll call vote.     
Section 7. The Congress may waive the provisions of sections 1, 2, 3, and 5 of this article in any fiscal year in which the United States is engaged in a military conflict that causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security and is so declared by three-fifths of the duly chosen and sworn Members of each House of Congress by a roll call vote. Such suspension must identify and be limited to the specific excess of outlays for that fiscal year made necessary by the identified military conflict.     

This is also a major departure from precedent. It takes a simply majority to declare war, so why require a supermajority to waive the 18 percent rule during wartime?

Section 8. No court of the United States or of any State shall order any increase in revenue to enforce this article.     

Take that, Affordable Care Act.

Section 9. Total receipts shall include all receipts of the United States Government except those derived from borrowing. Total outlays shall include all outlays of the United States Government except those for repayment of debt principal.     
Section 10. The Congress shall have power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation, which may rely on estimates of outlays, receipts, and gross domestic product.     
Section 11. This article shall take effect beginning with the fifth fiscal year beginning after its ratification.

So this is the starting point. Supporting the BBA in 1995 is not supporting the BBA in 2011.

*I originally joked here about unpaid interns, but the C4G pays theirs. Good on you!

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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