As a part of the deficit reduction deal passed in August, Congress is required to vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution by the end of the year. After staying resolute in their pledge to not raise taxes and negotiating $1 trillion in cuts off the bat, House Republicans blinked on the BBA, bringing the weakest version available to the floor for a vote.
We have always warned that a weak amendment that does not require a super-majority to increase taxes will result in more harm than good – indeed, it is a pure fiction that in an era of $1.5 trillion deficits (and $15 trillion of debt) that Congress would be willing or able to cut spending rather than raise taxes to close this budget hole. Throw in the silence in the weak BBA regarding enforcement, and you have a court-mandated tax hike that allows members of Congress to continue unbridled spending without having to get their hands dirty with tax increases.
Interestingly, most Republicans argued that only a weak BBA would secure the necessary Democrat votes to pass the House. The figment of near-passage in 1995 bolstered the illusion that Democrats had somehow revised their tax-and-spend creed by 2011. Regardless that the BBA was clearly DOA in the Democrat-controlled Senate, conservatives linked arms to push the weak BBA to the floor, believing House Democrats would join their phalanx.
This fantasy failed to play out again; only 25 Democrats crossed the party line to support the BBA, while four Republicans (notably, taxpayer champion and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan amongst them) voted against the BBA. Republicans needed double the amount of Democrats to vote for the amendment and all Republican votes to fall in line to secure passage. Even more painfully, of the TK Democrats who were both serving in 1995 and today, 7 Democrats who voted for the BBA in 1995 opposed the amendment on the floor last week.
This ignorance of political reality will cost Republicans more than a balanced budget – it will make it even more unlikely that a BBA can ever pass. By bringing a weak BBA to the floor, Democrats were able to reap the benefits of supporting prudential policy without ever having to exercise it. The 25 Democrats with fingerprints on a Balanced Budget Amendment can now return to their districts with just enough fiscal credo to hold on to their seats. Of the 25 Democrats who voted for the BBA, a majority were slated for tough elections next year; at least 18 who were in competitive districts will now be able breathe easier in their re-election bids.
The latest failed vote should signal that only in a fool’s paradise will any BBA garner significant Democrat support. The delusion that a weak BBA could pass relied on the assumption that Democrats would not only absolve themselves of years of deficit spending but also commit to fiscal restraint in the future. Republicans who wagered Democrats would have their come-to-Jesus moment when the dogma of the Democrat party hung in the balance have simply not been paying attention. Let's hope conservatives have learned their lesson – the next time a BBA comes up for a vote, it should be nothing less than the strongest version possible.
What do you think? Does the failure of a weak BBA again make it easier or harder for a robust BBA to pass Congress?