Durbin Chairs Hearing on Balanced Budget Amendment

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), chaired a hearing today on the perils of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.


The Budget Control Act, passed last August, requires a Congressional vote on a balanced budget amendment before the end of 2011. Today’s hearing comes days before an expected Senate vote on a balanced budget measure.  Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives rejected a proposed balanced budget amendment by a 261-165 vote – far short of the 2/3 necessary for passage.


“We are here today because some members of Congress believe that we should enshrine in the Constitution their theories on the federal budget.  It is ironic that the strongest supporters of a balanced budget amendment also proclaim their love for – and fidelity to – our Constitution,” Durbin said. “Proponents claim that a balanced budget amendment would solve our current budget problems.  But a closer look shows that it would not.  Instead, it would create a new and equally serious set of problems, while shifting the responsibility for solving those problems from Congress to the courts.”


“The simple truth is this: putting our nation’s fiscal house in order will require tough decisions about taxes and spending.  The Constitution assigns that job to Congress. Fulfilling this constitutional duty carries political risk for Congress.  But that is the job we signed up for.  Members of Congress should not try to change our Constitution to avoid their duty to make these hard choices,” Durbin concluded.


Today’s hearing looked at a number of perils of a balanced budget constitutional amendment, including:


  • Enforcement: Enforcement of a balanced budget amendment would likely fall to the courts, raising separation of powers concerns. Balanced budget amendment proposals say that Congress shall enforce the amendment “by appropriate legislation” but it is unlikely that legislation will resolve balanced budget disputes and thus unelected federal judges will become heavily involved in budget decisions. States that have passed balanced budget amendments have seen courts involved in requiring tax increases, limiting spending, and blocking the implementation of specific laws.


  • Massive cuts to safety net programs: Balanced budget amendments would likely force deep and indiscriminate cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the military retirement system, and other important federal programs that millions of Americans rely upon.  Some amendment proposals would also require a 2/3 majority vote in each chamber to raise additional revenue, which would give constitutional protection to current tax loopholes while further endangering safety net programs. 


  • Increased debt limit standoffs: Under some of the proposed balanced budget amendments, a 3/5 majority of each chamber would have to approve of future debt limit increases, making default more likely. Only three of the last eleven debt limit increases were supported by a 3/5 majority. Last August, the debt limit standoff nearly lead to default. That vote was a simple majority in the House.


  • Recessions will be worse: Balanced budget amendment proposals would require cutting spending during a recession, including cuts in countercyclical safety net programs that are designed to automatically increase when the economy is down (like food stamps and unemployment assistance).  CBO Director Elmendorf recently testified that taking away these federal stabilizers “risks making the economy less stable, risks exacerbating the swings in business cycles.”


  • Inflexibility will hamper disaster relief, national security: Under current balanced budget proposals the federal government would lack budget flexibility to address natural disasters, financial crises, and unforeseen threats.


  • States will bear the brunt of fiscal burdens: The Congressional Research Service has highlighted concerns that significant federal program cuts caused by a balanced budget amendment may make it necessary for states to make compensatory increases in their own spending.  Also, states often rely on federal support in order to stay afloat during tough economic times, but balanced budget amendment proposals would prevent the federal government from providing assistance to stabilize the states.


Witnesses at today’s hearing included: Bob Greenstein, President, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Alan Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law, George Washington University Law School; Robert Romasco, President-elect, AARP; former CBO Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin; and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. 


Video of today’s hearing can be viewed at www.judiciary.senate.gov.