WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday rejected a GOP-led effort to try to amend the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. The vote was staged to try to demonstrate that Republicans controlling Washington care about budget deficits that have spiraled on their watch.
The 233-184 tally fell well short — as expected — of the two-thirds requirement to pass a proposed amendment to the Constitution.
It came just a few weeks after GOP leaders engineered passage of a budget-busting $1.3 trillion catchall government funding bill, and after passage last year of sweeping tax cuts that would add about $1.8 trillion to the debt over the coming decade.
"Let's call this 'balanced budget amendment' what it is: a stunt to give Republicans political cover for their deficit-exploding tax scam," said Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "The party of so-called fiscal hawks has become the party of fiscal hypocrites. They know it, and so do the American people."
Plenty of Republicans feel the same way. Many party conservatives were upset by the recent catchall spending bill, which gave Democrats far more for their domestic priorities than they won under former President Barack Obama.
"Every Republican who voted for the omnibus should be required to hold a sign saying: 'I'm a hypocrite. I'm voting for the balanced budget amendment but I don't really mean it,'" said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
"It's a show vote," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
Supporters of the amendment said it's the only tool that could give lawmakers the spine to make the unpopular choices that have eluded them.
The House passed a balanced budget amendment in 1995, when deficits were far smaller but interest in eliminating them was far greater. Then, defeat of the balanced budget amendment in the Senate sparked an effort by Republicans to attack the deficit through regular congressional procedures. There's no such urgency now, even as the deficit is on track to hit $1 trillion within a couple of years.
President Donald Trump, for instance, opposes cuts to Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits — choices lawmakers would have to confront if the amendment were in place.
The measure, if passed by two-thirds of both House and Senate and ratified by 38 states, would require a balanced federal budget within the coming five years unless supermajorities of both chambers voted to lift the requirement. As a practical matter, it could force draconian cuts across the budget, put pressure on Congress to raise taxes, or be waived by lawmakers unable to agree on how to live within its strictures.
Not a single top House GOP leader took part in the debate.