Republicans fell short of the two-thirds support needed to send a balanced-budget amendment to the Senate on Thursday, but they succeeded in getting a roll call vote that can be used during the midterm campaigns to criticize Democrats as lax on fiscal discipline.
The 233-184 vote followed four hours of debate that centered on the growth of entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as well as how balancing the budget would impact the economy.
“The debt has risen as a result of having to pay for entitlement programs that are of indefinite duration and difficult to reduce over time,” said the measure's lead sponsor, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va. “The debts we are incurring under entitlement programs will burden multiple future generations.”
In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, federal spending on everything other than interest payments on the debt totaled $3.7 trillion, with mandatory benefit programs eating up 68 percent, leaving a much smaller share for discretionary spending on programs ranging from defense and border security to biomedical research and education. That figure rises to 74 percent in a decade under the latest Congressional Budget Office outlook.
Social Security and health care spending, including Medicare, Medicaid, the 2010 health care law and the Children's Health Insurance Program account for more than 80 percent of mandatory spending on average, CBO said.
Democrats countered that such a restrictive provision would destroy social safety net programs.
“This legislation would undermine the federal government’s ability to respond to an economic crisis,” said Judiciary ranking member Jerold Nadler, D-N.Y. “These programs also help overcome a downward spiral in the economy as they help stabilize the decline in consumer purchasing power and prevent a recession from turning into a depression."
Nadler also noted that Goodlatte’s balanced budget amendment has no enforcement mechanism. So, in the unlikely event it takes effect and Congress ignores its provisions, the issue would likely end up in the court system — with judges determining spending levels and policy.
“We would see judges ordering tax increases, or cuts in Social Security, or revising the transportation budget,” he said. “On what basis they would make such decisions is anyone’s guess.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., earlier in the day predicted the measure would not clear the two-thirds threshold for passage. Even if it had, the bar to passage in the Senate would have been very steep as well considering Republicans control only 51 of 100 seats.
In addition, the amendment would have to be ratified by three-quarters of the states; thus far only 28 legislatures have called for a convention to discuss a balanced budget amendment, falling well short of the 34 needed.