SALT LAKE CITY — Attempting to curb the national deficit that grew 25 percent in just the last two years, Sen. Orrin Hatch is rolling out a constitutional balanced-budget amendment.
"We're $14 trillion in national debt, and it's going up every day," Hatch said during a recent interview in his Salt Lake City office. "Frankly I don't think there is a downside (to a balanced-budget amendment). If we don't do something like that, we're never going to get things under control."
Hatch and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, formally announced Wednesday details of their amendment, which aims to steer the federal government away from both deficit spending and tax hikes by requiring a two-thirds vote from both houses of Congress for either activity to occur. Also, it provides a loophole allowing Congress to waive the balanced-budget amendment provisions for any fiscal year when the U.S. is at war or engaged in significant military conflict.
The Hatch/Cornyn amendment inherently entails electoral overtones because fiscal restraint — a characteristic Hatch not only hopes to embody vis-a-vis the balanced-budget amendment but also in his role as ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee — is a significant selling point for Utah's senior senator as he begins wooing voters in anticipation of his campaign for reelection in 2012.
"I intend to get elected in 2012," Hatch said. "One person can't do everything, but I can do a lot. … For Utah, a state with 2.8 million people, to have a ranking member on the Finance Committee and the real potential of being chairman upon election (in 2012), that's like money in the bank because every other person in the Congress has to consider what I think is important."
The liberal magazine Mother Jones reported Tuesday that the National Republican Senate Committee will not provide financial support to Hatch during the 2012 election cycle to help ward off an intraparty challenge at convention or in a primary. Dave Hansen, former chair of the state Republican Party and Hatch's campaign advisor, contacted the Deseret News on Wednesday to dispute the accuracy of the Mother Jones article.
During his 34-year Senate career, Hatch has sponsored four balanced-budget amendments and co-sponsored 13 others. Although previous iterations of Hatch's amendment gained some traction — the 1997 attempt, for example, came within a single vote in the U.S. Senate of the 67 votes necessary for a constitutional amendment — his legislation has already fallen by the wayside well over a dozen times.
"You just have to look at the actual number (27) of successful constitutional amendments to know that the probability of success here is small," said Quin Monson, BYU political science professor and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "But you can define success in a lot of ways, and it doesn't necessarily mean you actually get a constitutional amendment.
"It could be that you define success as reducing or eliminating the budget deficit, or you could define success here as getting reelected and signaling to your constituents that you're serious about an issue. My suspicion is that Sen. Hatch would count all of those things as a success."
Be that as it may, Hatch believes the national deficit's growth rate has become so staggering that it can no longer be ignored. Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, tends to agree with that line of reasoning.
"Sen. Hatch has been consistent in pushing this concept and/or bill throughout his career," Jowers said. "So it's perfectly in keeping (with that) for him to do it again. Probably there's never been a riper Congress — it becomes more possible now than it ever has before."
Already, the Hatch/Cornyn balanced-budget amendment has the support of 19 Republican senators. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, however, is not among that contingent — in no small part because Lee is readying a balanced-budget amendment of his own.
"I have my own proposal that I'm developing and I'll be filing and announcing within the next few days," Lee said Tuesday. "There are several competing proposals, they'll work their way through and we'll debate and discuss the merits of each one of them. I think that's healthy for the process, to have several competing versions, even though those of us who have presented them — including Sen. Hatch — share the same general common vision about what we needed to do."
In order for a constitutional amendment to become law, it must be ratified by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress as well as three-fourths of state legislatures.