Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., center, speaks with reporters after being elected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. He is flanked by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., left, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at right.
WASHINGTON — Congress will try again to force itself to mend its profligate spending habits when the Senate votes on proposals to amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget every year.
The House several weeks ago failed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to advance a constitutional amendment. The Senate is expected to fall short Wednesday when it votes on dueling Republican and Democratic proposals mandating that the federal government balance its books.
Republicans, and a minority of Democrats, argue that a balanced budget requirement is essential if the government is ever to emerge from an age of $1 trillion-a-year deficits. But most Democrats say it would put the government in a fiscal straitjacket in which it would have to make massive cuts in social programs and be unable to respond to economic downturns.
The Senate came within one vote of approving a balanced budget twice in the 1990s, but it hasn't taken up the issue since the last vote in 1997. This time the vote, a condition of the debt ceiling agreement reached last August, is not expected to be as close.
The House last month voted 261-165 in favor of a GOP-written balanced budget proposal, 23 votes short of a two-thirds majority.
Senators can choose between two versions. The Republican proposal, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and backed by all 47 Senate Republicans, would require that spending not exceed revenues in any one fiscal year. It would necessitate a two-thirds majority to raise taxes and set a cap on federal spending of 18 percent of gross domestic product.
"The record is clear," Hatch said. "Absent the constitutional restraint of a balanced budget amendment, Congress and the president do not make the tough choices. Instead, they take the path of least resistance."
The budgetary constrictions could be waived by a majority if there is a formal declaration of war; by a three-fifths vote if the country is involved in a military conflict constituting a threat to national security; or if two-thirds of both the House and the Senate approve a deficit.
The Democratic alternative, sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, has no spending caps or supermajorities for tax increases. It requires that the budget be balanced unless three-fifths of each chamber vote to waive it for national emergencies. It protects Social Security from being raided as a means of balancing the rest of the budget. Tax cuts for people earning more than $1 million a year would not be allowed unless the budget is in surplus.
Udall said the Hatch approach went too far in preventing Congress from responding to disasters, wars or economic crises, but he agreed that lawmakers needed additional tools to make them more disciplined. "It's appalling to me that Congress is so unable to resist the temptation to spend without limit while also trying to keep taxes as low as possible," he said.
Five Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to the Udall resolution. Even if all 47 Republicans voted for that proposal, it would still need 20 Democrats to be approved.
While the president does not have a role in advancing constitutional amendments, the White House voiced its opposition to the concept when it was before the House last month. The White House said such constitutional strictures risked accelerating economic downturns by forcing spending cuts when the economy is weak. It also pointed to a lack of enforcement mechanisms, ceding budget decisions to the federal courts when Congress doesn't meet its fiscal obligations.
Senate Budget Committee Democrats issued a report saying federal spending hasn't fallen below 18 percent of GDP since 1966 and meeting the GOP-set cap would result in "steep and draconian cuts in Social Security, Medicare, defense and other priorities."
Including the Bill of Rights, the Constitution has been amended only 27 times, the last time in 1992 with an amendment concerning congressional pay increases. Amendments require two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and then must be ratified by three-fourths of state legislatures.
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Forty-nine states — all but Vermont — have some form of balanced budget requirement. These generally apply only to operating budgets, allowing states to borrow for long-term capital investments. Cuts to the federal spending resulting from a balanced budget mandate could reduce federal grants to the states, making it harder for them to meet their budget goals.
The federal government has balanced its budget only six times in the past half-century, four times during Bill Clinton's presidency.