On Friday the House of Representatives failed to approve a constitutional amendment requiring the federal government to balance its budget every year. All but four of the House Republicans present supported the amendment, joined by 25 Democrats, including Iowa's Leonard Boswell (IA-03) and Dave Loebsack (IA-02).
Amendments to the U.S. Constitution require a two-thirds vote in each chamber of Congress to be approved, which is why the balanced budget amendment failed despite receiving 261 yeas and only 165 nays (roll call). This version of the amendment would have required that the president submit a balanced budget to Congress and that Congress could not increase the debt ceiling or spend more than revenues received in any fiscal year without a three-fifths majority vote in the U.S. House and Senate. Previous Republican proposals have been less flexible about prohibiting any federal budget that spends more than the government takes in.
As expected, Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) voted for the balanced budget amendment on Friday. Earlier this year, they supported so-called "cut, cap and balance" legislation that would eventually require the federal government to spend no more than it receives in revenues. King's statement of November 18 bashed Democrats for opposing a weakened version of the amendment:
"Today Speaker John Boehner tried a mighty effort to get Democrats to go along with a version of a Balanced Budget that he believed Democrats would vote for," said King. "I think that what was proven today is that Democrats are opposed to any balancing of the budget, because they voted against this very weak Balanced Budget Amendment that doesn't have enough teeth in it, in my view... So now the next step needs to be, let's get the Balanced Budget Amendment right. Let's put in an 18% cap for spending on gross domestic product. Let's require a 2/3 super majority in order to raise taxes."
"We need to get that into the dialogue of the presidential candidates; elect a president who receives a mandate from the American people calling for such an amendment; put that before the next Congress; and send it to the states for ratification, so that our grandchildren aren't living in this perpetual debt that's been passed here and spent by this Congress and signed by this President."
Before Friday's vote, Latham sent out a press release depicting the balanced budget amendment as "a principle already followed by responsible Iowa families, farmers and businesses," adding,
"I voted for a balanced budget amendment in 1995 in one of my first votes in Congress," Congressman Latham said. "A balanced budget amendment would set in stone the principle of fiscal restraint and stop the disastrous Washington spending binge of the last few years. The skyrocketing national debt has created waves of economic uncertainty and frozen job creation in our country. We need to make permanent changes to how Congress spends taxpayer dollars, and this balanced budget amendment is a critical step in the right direction. I urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to commit to basic fiscal responsibility and support this amendment."
Boswell and Loebsack opposed the "cut, cap and balance" bill in July, along with almost the entire House Democratic caucus. This November 18 statement from Boswell explained why he voted for the balanced budget amendment:
"During my days in the Iowa Senate, I worked across party lines to put the state's fiscal house in order and created the rainy day fund which was smart fiscal policy. This legislation would help take politics out of the budgeting process and make everyone face reality. With our country burdened with a 15 trillion dollar national debt, we need to take the necessary steps to reduce this massive amount.
"I came to Washington supporting pay-as-you-go legislation. It is rather sad that we have allowed partisanship to prevail at the expense of the American people. If we had adhered to the fiscal policies of the 1990s, we could have been completely debt-free last year. Unfortunately, we veered dangerously off course by giving tax breaks to millionaires and putting two wars on the credit card. I believe this amendment is now a necessity."
Loebsack's office did not release a statement explaining his vote for the balanced budget amendment. Instead, this press release of November 18 highlighted Loebsack's call for members of Congress to reduce their own pay:
Washington, D.C. - Congressman Dave Loebsack today joined a bipartisan group of members in calling on the Super Committee to reduce Congressional pay and benefits. This pay cut would mark the first time in 78 years that Congress' salaries will be reduced. Earlier this year, Loebsack joined Congresswoman Gabby Giffords to introduce the Congressional Pay Cut Act, which would reduce member's salaries by five percent, which would save $50 million over ten years.
"Congress should not be exempt from the sacrifices it will take to balance the budget," the members wrote. "The last time Members of Congress took a cut in pay was on April 1, 1933 - in the midst of the Great Depression. At a time of similar economic turmoil and record deficits, Congress should not require sacrifices of others without tightening its own belt."
Loebsack has consistently called for Members of Congress to have a personal stake in our nation's recovery. In addition to the Congressional Pay Cut Act, he has cosponsored legislation that would tie the eligibility for Members of Congress to draw their pension benefits to their Social Security retirement age. He has also voted twice to cut Congressional office budgets.
Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01) has repeatedly called for getting the federal deficit under control, but he rejected the "cut, cap and balance" approach earlier this year and voted against the balanced budget amendment on Friday. Braley's office did not release a statement about his November 18 vote.
Republican talking points often echo Latham's point about forcing the government to manage its budget just like families around the country. Robert Greenstein shattered that analogy, pointing out that ordinary Americans routinely borrow to buy homes or send children to college.
Families also build up savings in good economic times and draw them down when times are tight to cover expenses that exceed their current incomes.
The proposed constitutional amendment would bar the federal government from such practices. The federal government couldn't borrow to finance investments that boost future economic growth, such as infrastructure improvements. And if it ran a surplus one year, it couldn't draw it down the next year to help balance the budget if the economy turned down.
In fact, even if a family financed a new house or a college education entirely out of savings - with no loans and no mortgage - that would still be prohibited "deficit financing" under the terms of the balanced budget amendment, because it is still a case of spending more in that year than the family earned in that year.
Latham also alluded to the budget practices of farmers and business owners, ignoring the fact that they too spend more than they take in during lean years, or as part of long-term capital investments.
The economic forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers has warned that a balanced budget amendment could be "catastrophic" for the U.S. economy, costing millions of jobs and reducing the potential for growth.
When the economy is weak, the federal government is one of the few actors that can help compensate for a drop in private-sector demand. That approach to managing the economy has had bipartisan support in the past, as when President George W. Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress cranked up federal spending during a downturn in 2001 and 2002.
But Republicans have long preached what they failed to practice on balancing the budget. I'm more interested in why Boswell and Loebsack would vote for even a weak version of a constitutional amendment that could hurt the economy.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the 2009 stimulus bill, passed the U.S. House with 244 votes in favor, including all three Iowa Democrats. The final version, including compromises forged to win 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, passed the House with 246 yeas, again including Braley, Boswell and Loebsack. Both of those majorities fell short of the three-fifths vote Congress would need to approve deficit spending under the balanced budget amendment Boswell and Loebsack just voted for.
In recent weeks, Boswell has called for more federal spending on infrastructure projects to create jobs. He has also criticized Republicans for blocking that proposal. That kind of spending to support the economy couldn't happen if Congress were bound by the balanced budget proposal that just came up for a vote.
Like Latham and King, Boswell and Loebsack supported misguided budget policy on Friday. That doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong on the politics of the balanced budget amendment. Boswell is facing his toughest re-election challenge ever against Latham in the new IA-03. Loebsack will seek a fourth term against one of three Republican opponents in a district with less of a Democratic lean than the current IA-02.
Maybe Boswell and Loebsack were wise to defend themselves; perhaps Republican attack ads about the "common sense" balanced budget amendment could be damaging during the 2012 campaign. Nevertheless, I suspect the Democrats would be on stronger political ground taking a consistent stand in favor of the federal government's ability to boost the economy.
Boswell has been among a few dozen House Democrats who voted with Republicans plenty of times this year (for instance, regarding coal ash and air pollution regulations, federal enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the right to carry concealed weapons). Loebsack's vote for the balanced budget amendment was more surprising, because he belongs to the House Progressive Caucus. Crossing party lines on this kind of issue is more typical for Blue Dog Democrats like Boswell.
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.
UPDATE: Only one other Progressive Caucus member voted for the balanced budget amendment on November 18: Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon.