Carol Shea-Porter - The Truth About the Balanced Budget Amendment

There was some good news coming from Washington last month.  The totally dysfunctional United States House of Representatives tried to capsize the Constitution and the economy, but they failed.  Luckily, there were members, both Democrats and Republicans, who refused to vote for the politically-motivated and deeply flawed balanced budget amendment.

If this constitutional amendment were ever ratified, then we would have to drastically cut spending and raise taxes to balance a budget.  Since our New Hampshire Congressmen and their Republican tea-party-controlled Congress are currently trying to cut taxes by $200 billion a year for corporations and our richest citizens, you can be sure that you and I would have to bear the burden. 

Bruce Bartlett, the Republican deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department under the George H.W. Bush administration, who previously served on Congressman Ron Paul’s staff and as senior policy analyst under President Reagan, wrote a column called, “The Balanced Budget Amendment Delusion,” and he said the Republican proposal “is, frankly, nuts.”  Five Nobel laureates, along with other leading economists, urged President Obama and the Congress to stop the bill, saying it was very unsound policy that would hurt the economy.  They said that “a balanced budget amendment would mandate perverse actions in the face of recessions.” They point out that a balanced budget amendment would stop the federal government’s ability to borrow for important investments like infrastructure and research and development.

Others have helpfully pointed out that while states may be required to balance their budgets, they do borrow for projects, and states do not have to pay for national defense and other unpredictable and expensive programs.    If this balanced budget amendment passed, small businesses and the economy would suffer because people would be laid off and there would be less purchasing power. Programs such as Medicare and health care for children, etc., would be severely cut. If our nation experienced a nuclear accident or financially devastating tornado or hurricane, Congress would have to either slash essential programs further, or raise taxes to pay for the disaster, or just be unable or unwilling to help.  This fighting over what to fund would create gridlock—just remember the debt-ceiling vote—and it would probably push the debate into the courts. 

Here’s the saddest part of the story.  Republicans knew all this before the vote, but only a few, such as Paul Ryan, had the intellectual honesty to vote no.   Republicans got to pretend that they were controlling spending, while the “bad guys”—the Democrats—refused to.  One of our New Hampshire Members of Congress wrote to his constituents about Congress refusing to stop “spending beyond its means,” ignoring the fact that the majority of the spending and debt was created by a Republican President and Congress handing out $2 trillion in unpaid tax cuts while borrowing for two wars and a prescription drug program that they chose to borrow for rather than pay for at the time.  

According to the AP, the budget has only been balanced six times in the past fifty years.  It’s important to point out that four of those times were under President Clinton, a Democratic president.  As Republican Congressman David Dreier said when he voted no on this amendment, “I was wrong.  Two short years later, we balanced the federal budget. We balanced the federal budget and that went on for several years.  What I found … is that we were able to balance the federal budget without touching that inspired document, the U.S. Constitution."

Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler voted no, because as he said on the floor of Congress, “The fault, dear colleagues, is not in our Constitution. It’s in an irresponsible Republican president and an irresponsible Republican Congress. Many of those same Republican members, who saw nothing wrong with busting the budget, who sat quietly when Vice President Cheney said that deficits don’t matter, now demand this assault on our founding document instead of delivering the votes for sound fiscal policy.”  Congress needs to create jobs and work on real policy, and take the politically tough votes to find savings and increase revenue.  They shouldn’t be hiding behind a bill that they neither believed in nor thought would pass.  


Former congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter represented New Hampshire’s 1st District from 2007-11. She is seeking a third term in the November 2012 election. She wrote the proposal for and established a nonprofit social service agency, which continues to serve all ages. She taught politics and history and is a strong supporter of Medicare and Social Security.