- - Wednesday, April 18, 2018


The typical congressman just can’t help himself. He’s the grown-up kid who fished his daddy’s credit card out of his pants pocket while Daddy slept, and he has been the big man on the high-school campus since. This lack of self-restraint was further demonstrated last week when a vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution failed once more.

Just as expected, the 233-184 vote in the House fell far short of the votes required to advance such an amendment. If the measure gets a vote at all in the Senate, which is not likely, it will only be to give Republican senators running for re-election something empty to brag about, as meaningless as a resolution by the United Nations.

The House voted largely along party lines, with just seven Democrats joining 226 Republicans in favor. Six Republicans and 178 Democrats voted in opposition. That just seven members of their caucus voted for a way to balance a budget demonstrates once more that the Democrats have zero interest in restraining spending. It was Republicans — only slightly less addicted to big spending — who pushed the balanced-budget measure, knowing they would fail. This cynical exercise was aimed at mollifying an increasingly restive Republican base furious at passage of the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill last month.

The vote was taken just three days after the Congressional Budget Office projected annual deficits would hit $1 trillion or more beginning in 2020. (Pretty soon we’ll be talking about real money.) The sponsors, members of the conservative Republican Study Committee, insist they obtained a binding commitment from the House leadership for a vote as far back as last autumn, but the timing of the vote could scarcely look worse in the wake of that bloated spending package.

If the Republicans think they’re fooling anyone in their much maligned base, they’re wrong. Evidence mounts that the suckers have got the message. The Republican leaders dangled the promise that if the party could only get a Republican president to go with a Republican Congress, there would be no limit to the good things. To their consternation, they got what they said they wanted, and no doubt were befuddled and disappointed when they did. With all the pieces having fallen into place, it’s as difficult as ever to achieve long-sought goals.

All that’s required to balance the budget is the will to do it, and if that will were available there would be no need for a constitutional amendment. Everyone can see the stakes, that one of these days, and it might be sooner than anyone thinks, China will cut off America’s credit, like disappointing the town drunk at the liquor store. Spending more than it takes in is a recipe for disaster even in the richest nation in the world. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to make the hard choices required to balance the books.

Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, was spot on when he called the balanced-budget amendment vote “the biggest joke in the world.” But nobody’s laughing. “It’s a way for people to hide behind tough decisions,” he said. “We’ve got the House, the Senate and the presidency. If we wanted to figure out a way to balance the budget, we could do it.”

That sounds a lot like, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but the will is woefully lacking. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and a sponsor of the amendment that failed, insists that for lawmakers to be able to “consistently make the tough decisions necessary to sustain fiscal responsibility, Congress must have the external pressure of a balanced-budget requirement to force it to do so.”

Maybe so, but it’s a moot point now. However, it’s not at all clear that a balanced-budget amendment would curb congressional addiction to red ink. Congress can’t do the job it came to Washington to do, but congressmen are masters at finding loopholes in the laws they enact. A balanced-budget amendment would have prevented the government from spending more money than it collects in any given year, but a three-fifths vote of both houses would have enabled circumventing that rule. Congress can waive the requirement with simple majority votes in time of war or national emergency, and what greater emergency could there be than the necessity to get another bite out of the backside of a taxpayer.

Without a balanced-budget amendment to hide behind, Republicans must find another excuse for taking another nap. With the midterm elections looming closer every day, a place to start would be putting an end to stopgap budgeting and actually enact a budget for fiscal 2019 before Oct. 1. We’re not holding our breath.

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