Constitution Check: Must the next federal budget be balanced?

In a continuing series of posts, Lyle Denniston provides responses based on the Constitution and its history to public statements about the meaning of the Constitution  and what duties it imposes or rights its protects. Today’s topic: a constitutional amendment to require a balanced federal budget.

The constitutional claim:

“The Secretary of the Treasury shall not exercise…additional borrowing authority…until the Archivist of the United States transmits to the states…a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.”

- Sec. 301, Bill H.R. 2560, adopted by the House of Representatives on Tuesday by a vote of 234-190.   The measure now goes to the Senate.

The constitutional response:

It’s a safe bet that when the new fiscal year for the federal government begins on October 1, the Constitution will not require a balanced budget.   And, probably, neither will it be required of any budget after that (read more about the constitution and the National Debt here).

Photo by Alan Cleaver

But that won’t be for lack of trying.  Library of Congress analyst James V. Saturno once wrote: “Since the 1930s, dozens of proposals have called for laws or constitutional amendments that would require a balanced budget…The accumulation of large deficits since the 1970s has heightened the feeling of some policymakers and other observers that the Constitution should be amended to require the federal government to balance revenues and expenditures.”

That was written 13 years ago.  Today that “heightened feeling” not only persists, but seems to be even more intense. As the U.S. Treasury approaches the limit of its borrowing capacity on August 2, deficits are now so routine in federal budgets that they are at the center of Washington bargaining over what to do next.

The approval in the House of Representatives on Tuesday of a call for a balanced budget amendment was widely regarded by Washington insiders as a symbolic gesture that now clears the way, politically, for a supposedly final round of negotiations about whether, and how, to raise the debt ceiling, and cut the budget in the process.  On that, there is surely more to come, perhaps even later this week.

In the meantime, whether symbolic or not, the House vote does send a lesson in constitutional arithmetic: while the proposal drew 234 “yea” votes, it was still 56 votes short of what the Constitution would require to propose a constitutional amendment – a two-thirds majority in both houses to send the measure to the states for consideration, at which point three-quarters  of the states (38) would have to approve to actually put it into the Constitution. (The president, by the way, has no say in the amending process.)

Given the difficulty of amending the Constitution (that has been done only 27 times since the original document was ratified in June 1788), the popularity of proposals to amend the Constitution far outshines the prospect of actually doing so.   And few ideas for amendments are as popular as the one to mandate that the government live within its fiscal means.

A closer examination of what the House adopted on Tuesday shows some other ideas for fundamentally altering the existing Constitution:

*  While it would raise the federal debt ceiling, the added borrowing power could not be used until the House and Senate had approved the proposed balanced budget amendment.

*   The amendment described in the bill would require a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate to unbalance any budget.

* Any increase in the debt limit would also need three-fifths approval in each chamber.

* No bill to raise revenue – either by increasing tax rates or closing loopholes – could be adopted unless it had the approval of two-thirds of each chamber.

* The amendment could be suspended by Congress in any year in which Congress had formally declared war.  It also could be suspended during a military conflict – short of declared war – that threatened national security.

As a political reality, the super-majority requirements probably could seldom if ever be reached.  Thus, balanced budgets would be the norm, except in war time.  And that, of course, is precisely the idea.

Lyle Denniston is the National Constitution Center’s Adviser on Constitutional Literacy.  He has reported on the Supreme Court for 53 years, currently covering it for SCOTUSblog, an online clearing house of information about the Supreme Court’s work.

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