The defeat last week of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution showed a remarkable shift in congressional opinion in just 15 years on what had, at one point, appeared destined to become the 28th addition to the founding document.
But Friday’s 261-165 vote — 23 votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to clear the House — was the latest evidence that polarization in Congress is turning what were once consensus issues into partisan battlegrounds.
In 1995, a similar amendment garnered 300 votes of support, with 72 of those coming from Democrats. By contrast, just 25 Democrats voted for last week’s effort.
The vote was punctuated by the nine lawmakers who voted for the amendment the last time around, in 1995, but who switched and voted “No” last week, including eight Democrats and one Republican. Not a single “no” vote from last time switched to vote for it this time.
Some switchers blamed President Clinton and congressional Republicans for balancing budgets from 1998 through 2001, proving that it can be done without needing to alter the Constitution itself.
“I believed in 1995 when I cast that vote, January of 1995, in favor of the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, that it was the only way we would be able to achieve a balanced budget. I was wrong. Two short years later, we balanced the federal budget,” said Rep. David Dreier, the lone Republican to switch from support to opposition.
Other switchers blamed President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress for squandering those balanced budgets in the ensuing years, and said they no longer believed in the kind of bipartisan cooperation they said they saw in the 1990s, and that they feel is required.
“I’m convinced that in today’s supercharged partisan environment, it is nearly impossible to get a three-fifths vote for any substantial legislation, no matter how important it is,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat who switched.
Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat who also changed from 1995 to now, also doubted a supermajority could be mustered in time of emergency, and fretted what the amendment would do to cherished programs.
“The balanced budget amendment that failed to pass the House today is not a practical or responsible solution to our nation’s budget woes,” he said. “It would impose dramatic cuts when we can least afford them, cripple the economic recovery and imperil our social safety net: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
A number of the other switchers simply went silent.
Spokesmen for Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, and Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, Indiana Democrat, didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment last week on their stance.
The amendment would require that annual spending be limited to annual revenue, with the exception of interest payments. It would require a three-fifths vote of each chamber to break the cap. The amendment would also require a three-fifths vote to raise the debt limit.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who led the amendment effort, blasted the No. 2 and No. 3 ranking Democrats, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Mr. Clyburn, for their flip-flop.
“This vote should not have been about politics. It should have been about what is right for our nation,” he said afterward.
Just three of the Democrats who voted for the amendment in 1995 and who are still in the chamber today voted for the new version.
By contrast, 58 Democrats who voted against the 1995 version are still in the House, and all of them cast the same vote again.
The same is true in the Senate, where just three still-in-office Democrats voted for the BBA in 1996 — Sens. Max Baucus of Montana and Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who was in the House in the 1990s.
But 16 current members of the Democratic Caucus voted “no” in the Senate 1996, and they have been joined by five others who were in the House back then. One, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, voted against the House version in 1995, was subsequently appointed to the Senate and voted against it again in the upper chamber in 1996.