Policy

State Activists Watching Washington Balanced-Budget Kabuki

Rapt audience for Thursday’s symbolic vote

State activists hope this week’s balanced-budget vote will bring national attention to their work. Above, staffers attend a House Financial Services Committee hearing in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House’s balanced-budget amendment vote Thursday may be a symbolic gesture aimed at shoring up Republicans’ conservative base in advance of the midterm elections. But it’s all too real for activists at the state level, who are watching closely and thrilled about the national spotlight on an issue that has been percolating quietly outside the Beltway.

Despite the joint resolution’s lack of support within the halls of Congress, there is still optimism that a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution will be sent to the states for ratification during the next few years.

Groups such as the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force and American Legislative Exchange Council have been working for years to get the required 34 state legislatures to adopt resolutions calling for a constitutional convention — the first since 1787 — to consider a balanced-budget amendment. “I see it happening within three to five years, because I think we’re hitting a critical point with the national debt,” said Karla Jones, director of federalism and the international relations task force at ALEC.

Jones said the chances that two-thirds of Congress vote to adopt a balanced-budget amendment are “nil.” But she supports leadership holding the votes because it keeps the issue of government spending and the national debt on lawmakers’ minds.

Watch: David Hawkings’ Whiteboard: What Is the Debt Ceiling?

“We see it as a show vote,” she said. “Having the vote is fine, but we need to remember that it’s not going to effect meaningful change — that really, Congress has proven itself unable to limit its own spending.”

The coalitions working to call a constitutional convention to pass a balanced-budget amendment have active resolutions in 28 states. That number has remained stagnant for about a year, as Maryland, New Mexico and Nevada rescinded their previous support. The Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force had hoped to have 34 states by this summer, but that is no longer expected to happen. The group is targeting state lawmakers in Maine, Virginia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho and Washington state.

Articles of Confederation

Even if they can get 34 states call for a convention, there is a lot of uncertainty about what would come out of that convention. For one thing, the bar for actually approving a constitutional amendment is higher — approval by three-fourths of the states, or 38.

The last constitutional convention 231 years ago was called in order to amend the Articles of Confederation; what emerged, of course, was an entirely different document called the U.S. Constitution.

So far, all 27 amendments to the Constitution have come from Congress. None have evolved from a conference of the states. But the House vote comes after rank-and-file conservative activists have rebelled against the bipartisan two-year budget deal which increased discretionary spending by nearly $300 billion, and a subsequent 2,200-page fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations measure that represents the first leg of the two-year pact. The Congressional Budget Office now forecasts a return to $1 trillion annual deficits starting in fiscal 2020.

[Where the Omnibus Money Is Going]

The vote also comes one day after the chief Republican driver of spending cuts for the past decade — House Speaker Paul D. Ryan — announced his retirement at the end of this Congress with an acknowledgement that “more work needs to be done” on spending.

The move fulfills a promise GOP leaders made to the Republican Study Committee last October in exchange for its members voting to adopt the fiscal 2018 budget resolution that included the fast-track reconciliation instructions the GOP needed to pass their $1.5 trillion tax overhaul.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would be inclined to hold a similar vote in the Senate.

“I think that’s something we ought to consider doing. Most of my members think a balanced-budget amendment would bring the kind of discipline that has been missing under administrations of both parties,” McConnell said Tuesday.

War waiver

The joint resolution, authored by retiring House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, would prevent the federal government from running deficits unless three-fifths of each chamber votes to allow spending to exceed the amount of incoming revenue. It would also require three-fifths of the House and Senate to vote to increase the statutory debt limit, require the president’s budget request to balance and require a majority vote in each chamber to raise taxes. All of those requirements would be voided if the country were in war time or a “military conflict which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security.”

If the amendment were to be approved by two-thirds of each chamber and then ratified by three-fourths of the states, it would not take effect for five years. Once it did, it would require lawmakers to more frequently debate where U.S. troops can be deployed.

[Retiring and Resigning: Who’s Leaving Congress?]

It would require that any deficit spending on defense can be used only to fight a war that is either officially declared or sanctioned by a joint resolution adopted by a majority of each chamber, a lower bar than the three-fifths that would be necessary for nondefense spending. Such a resolution would need to state that the country “is engaged in military conflict, which causes an imminent and serious military threat to national security,” according to a House Judiciary aide. When writing that declaration or joint resolution, lawmakers would set the fiscal years during which deficit spending for the war effort would be allowed.

Absent such a resolution, defense spending — or any other spending for that matter — would have to equal the amount of revenue. To allow for increased defense spending in locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, Congress would either have to crowd out other spending or vote to effectively authorize those wars, perhaps on a regular basis.

There are no protections in the measure that would allow deficits in times of economic stress, such as a recession or a depression. During those events, requiring government spending to balance annually — when tax revenues will likely be lower — would likely cause a reduction in safety net benefits and exacerbate economic turmoil, critics say.

“It’s hard to believe they can say it with a straight face, but you will hear Republican members say this week, ‘Washington needs to get its fiscal house in order.’ Only a few months after they added $1.5 trillion to the deficit by tax cuts that mainly benefited the wealthy and powerful,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Monday. “It is the height of hypocrisy.”

The New York Democrat argued that Republicans are using the balanced budget amendment as a means to advocate for spending cuts to entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, with the latest CBO figures as justification.

John M. Donnelly and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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