Is the Balanced Budget Amendment Bill a Political Gimmickry: new lessons from the failure of this initiative in current congress?


Keywords or Terms: Balanced Budget Amendment; Deception; Deceit; Betrayal; Fiscal Conservatives; Whimsical; Historical;  narber Conable (R-NY); Ed Jenkins (D-GA); Tip O'Neil (D-MA); Charles Stenholm (D-TX); Katrina; Iraq; Afghanistan; and, Modern Democratic Governance

It’s historical, it’s whimsical, it’s seasonal and many congressional representatives dream about it, Republicans and Democrats alike. Rather than promote a balanced approach to government spending that eventually helps the nation dig out of debt, Republicans and Democrats in congress often lead a bandwagon of famed or defamed fiscal conservatives to seek the passage of a balanced budget amendment bill, every now and then. What inspires them to do this is sometimes defensive and maybe liken to the incredible desire to appear as better managers of the national fiscal issues, whenever either party holds a majority in either or both congressional chambers



Incidentally, history has shown that neither Republicans nor Democrats are good custodians of the national kitty-bank! Previous attempts to pass a mandated balanced budget have been fraught with defections, reversals and sometimes, betrayals. After several failed attempts in the period 1930 - 1982, Republican Representatives in the house were able to pass a balanced budget amendment by circumventing parliamentary procedures through the use of discharge petition about three decades ago. Representatives Barber Conable (R–NY) and Ed Jenkins (D–GA) in 1982, when for the first time the measure was able to garner 236 supporting votes in the House, a number short of the required two-thirds majority, attempted to circumvent the then Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D–MA), to his disdain; however, the measure went nowhere in Senate. Subsequent attempts in the 1990’s, including a bipartisan effort led by Charles Stenholm (D–TX), fell woefully short and remained unsuccessful till today.



Emotional reactions during those times that these efforts have been made to pass the ephemeral balanced budget amendment, historical experiences have always been ignored; and, the approaches taken to move the initiative through congress, indicate poor homework by the lawmakers, flawed and arbitrary efforts by party leaders, and an unmistakeable unwillingness to do all it takes. Worse more, the routine woeful failures at each time, shows how unprepared and sometimes mischievous, the moving groups are every time. For the records, I am in support of prudent national fiscal policy; however, when a proposal is completely infeasible in light of modern day governance, it is ridiculous to find lawmakers pushing an unworkable proposal, especially when it is being done half-hardheartedly.



The idea of balanced budget amendment has been around for centuries, but it has often failed to garner the necessary two-third majority support, when brought to a general vote in both or either chambers of congress. Interestingly, it often gains an arousal or support in congress around the period after a recession, 1930, 1973, 1983, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2011; and, every time a movement to pass the initiative in congress is advanced, those lawmakers who are initially behind it at the committee stages and floor debates, often back out and vote against the proposal when it comes to a general vote. For instance, in 1798, when the proposal was first mouthed, Thomas Jefferson opined that if there was any single amendment that he wished, that would have been one limiting the power of the federal government to borrow. That proposal may have been applicable three centuries ago; however, in modern day governance and public sector management, it is far from possible and in some quarters, will be considered ridicules. Can you imagine, during a huge natural disaster like Katrina or elongated foreign wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, if the federal government looses the power to borrow?



In many instances, where the federal or state governments have sought to borrow, it is out of necessity to meet some unavoidable national spending obligations; and, in some cases where the needs have been frivolous, both major political parties in congress, at one time or the other, have either failed to exercise their power to curtail the governments, or abdicated their responsibility to be fiscally prudent for the sake of other interests. Convincing ourselves that it is possible to completely restrained governments, federal and state, from exercising the power to borrow, is close to self-deception. Lawmakers are often focused primarily at advancing their careers in congress or state capitols and are hardly going to pass a law that will work against them when they are in a majority. Each, Republicans or Democrats, have some primary objectives to advance in a congressional session where they are in a majority, and any proposal or bill that will scuttle their chances of effecting those objectives, is a personal non-Grata! That is why you see the repeated failures of the balanced budget amendment, every time the initiative comes up for a general floor vote in congress. The failure of the balanced budget amendment bill is a re-affirmation of this reality; and, probably a reminder that this initiative is more of a wishful thinking than many of our lawmakers are willing to concede.



Either groups of lawmakers in congress, Republicans or Democrats, are more attuned to the balanced budget amendment debate, whenever either is not in a majority. Either group is motivated to ram the initiative through, when they find themselves in a disadvantageous end in fulfilling their party’s emblems; and occasionally, seek defection from lawmakers of opposing party to achieve their dream of balanced budget amendment. But neither group of these lawmakers, Republicans or Democrats, has been able to truthfully achieve the objective of passing the balanced budget amendment bill in both chambers of congress. Because of this, one can be certain that the next generations of Americans will always find that their country is in a hole for the foreseeable future in terms of fiscal responsibility.



As a matter of history and experience, the balanced budget amendment bill is gradually becoming an archaic and unreachable initiative in congress – commitment by two-third majority of congressional members and states’ resident are essential – and often, it looks rather difficult to achieve all concurrently in the same congressional session and year. Further, the political dynamics of understanding what line item constitutes a federal budget and which item has been subtracted or included for various interpretation of a balanced federal budget, has made it difficult or confusing for the average American to understand where each proponent of the balanced budget amendment initiative are coming from, every time they rise up again..


Fascinatingly, Republicans have attempted to push further this initiative to the goal post every time they hold a majority in the House of Representatives. The Democrats haven’t been bad too; however, one finds that either group lack the character to push this initiative through.
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