WASHINGTON (Circa) — Next week, the Republican-led House of Representatives will vote on a balanced budget amendment, requiring the federal government to put its fiscal house in order and balance all expenses with equal savings.
The bill would impose strict limitations on Congress' power of the purse, requiring a three-fifths supermajority in the House and Senate to increase taxes, raise the debt ceiling or spend additional cash beyond total government revenues.
For the past decade, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, has introduced a balanced budget amendment to impose fiscal discipline on Washington by amending the Constitution. Each time it was brought to a vote, it fell short and, as he lamented in a committee hearing on the subject, America continues "further down the road of chronic deficits" and "crippling debt."
With only one Democratic co-sponsor for Goodlatte's balanced budget amendment, it is almost certain to fall short again. Still, it is being celebrated by so-called deficit hawks in Congress, many of whom see it as a chance to show their fiscally conservative bona fides after months of a nonstop government spending spree and a tough midterm election on the horizon.
Republican Study Group chairman Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina declared the vote a win for fiscal responsibility, saying the amendment is needed to force Congress to "make the tough decisions required" to keep government spending in check.
Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose caucus is almost certain to oppose the amendment en masse, called the vote "stunt" and "an act of breathtaking hypocrisy" after passing a spending bill and tax cuts that will add trillions to the national debt.
“It is clear that GOP deficit hawks are not endangered, but extinct," Pelosi stated.
Before leaving Washington for a two-week Easter recess, the Republican-controlled Congress approved a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, avoiding what would have been the third government shutdown of 2018. The bill busted through previous government spending caps with $143 billion additional defense and domestic spending.
That spending bill followed a bipartisan compromise in February, which set a two-year budget framework that allows the spending increases to continue through 2019. It also comes on the heels of the GOP's signature $1.5 trillion tax cuts that passed on strict party lines in December.
All told, the policies enacted in the past four months are expected to result in a $1.2 trillion annual deficit in 2019 with annual trillion-dollar deficits projected indefinitely into the future, according to projections from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
The tax cuts, budget compromise and spending bill are also expected to add another $2.1 trillion to the U.S. national debt that now exceeds $20 trillion, according to the Committee for a Responsible Budget.
"We saw an exercise in fiscal recklessness this year unlike any of the compromises that occurred during the Obama era," said Romina Boccia, a leading expert in fiscal policy and government spending at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Unlike the budget compromises reached between Congress and President Barack Obama, the bill President Donald Trump reluctantly signed in March increased defense spending by $80 billion and domestic spending by $63 billion without making cuts elsewhere, specifically in mandatory spending programs.
That is why 90 Republicans in the House and 23 in the Senate broke from their party to vote against the massive omnibus last month. Some conservatives criticized the process; others lashed out at the product: a 2,300-page bill representing one of the biggest federal government spending increases in years.
"With a straight face, I'm not sure how you can say you want to balance the budget after adding $2 trillion to the debt over the last four months," said Mark Harkins, former congressional staffer and senior fellow at the Georgetown University Government Affairs Institute.
Many conservatives in Congress truly believe in the need for a constitutional amendment to limit government spending, though most recognize that the balanced budget amendment "is a showboat."
Changing the Constitution requires a supermajority of 290 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate, meaning the GOP would need to earn substantial Democratic support. Even if the amendment passes Congress, at least 38 states would have to ratify the change.
"We're getting to the point where we're doing symbolic votes more than we're trying to actually get legislation enacted," Harkins suggested.
Pointing to the midterm elections in November, he explained that a number of Republicans have upset the part of their base that sent them to Washington to "starve the beast" of excessive government spending. "They need their base to believe they're the ones with fiscal sanity, even though their more recent votes seem to belie that idea."
In a recent poll by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, 77 percent of respondents said that addressing the national debt should be a top priority for the Congress and the president.
The Republican leadership's decision to vote on a balanced budget amendment during an election year doesn't come as a surprise to Boccia. She worries, however, that the "this might be more of a messaging bill rather than a real attempt at bringing about fiscal discipline."
In recent years, the Republican-controlled Congress has attempted to curb federal government spending after annual deficits peaked in the years following the financial crisis. After taking control of the House in 2010, Republicans worked with Democrats to impose spending caps on the discretionary budget as a way to cut $1 trillion in government spending over ten years.
Republican leaders in Congress have consistently proposed cutting mandatory programs, or entitlements, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as way to combat the rising tide of federal deficits. Those three programs plus the interest on the federal debt account for the majority of federal government spending.
"Just trying to pursue this balanced budget amendment is really a copout," argued Boccia. She continued that if members of Congress were serious about fiscal responsibility they would use their slim majority and the reconciliation process to start entitlement reform this year.
"They could make the reforms to food stamps and Medicaid that they've been talking about and that the president has supported in his budget," she noted.
The Republican Study Group continues to push for cuts to mandatory spending programs and the House GOP leadership suggested last year after passing the tax bill they would move on to entitlement reform. House Speaker Paul Ryan has since walked back his pledge to take on the growing costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, after facing stiff opposition from Republicans in the Senate.
President Trump also presents an obstacle to the entitlement reform agenda. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly promised supporters that he would not cut Social Security or Medicare.
Aside from cutting mandatory programs, the other option for balancing the budget is raising taxes. Under Goodlatte's balanced budget amendment, increasing revenue through new taxes would require a three-fifths majority vote in the House and Senate, a formula that will make an already contentious political process even more challenging.
"Congress really doesn't really have a budget problem. They have a math problem," Harkins said, explaining that almost every member can find 10 or 20 percent of the budget they would like to cut but they can't make the votes add up when those spending cuts impact their own constituents or their own interests.
"Elected members of Congress are very good at cutting taxes and giving people their dessert, but they're very bad at cutting programs and making them eat their vegetables," he added.
More often they are personally forced to swallow compromise deals that are less than appetizing.
The vote this week on the balanced budget amendment was such a compromise. Back in October, GOP deficit hawks in the Republican Study Group were prepared to block a procedural vote on a $4 trillion budget resolution that was going to be the vehicle and only means of passing the Republican tax bill.
In a deal with Speaker Ryan, Rep. Walker guaranteed he would bring enough of the conservative holdouts on board in exchange for a floor vote on the balanced budget amendment. That debt comes due next week.