WASHINGTON — Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee and four other senate Republicans came together last week to unveil the Senate Republican Balanced Budget Amendment. If ratified, the amendment would mandate that budgetary outlays for any fiscal year do not exceed total revenues, and would require that the president submit a balanced budget to Congress ever year. Using the amendment as a loud statement about fiscal conservatism, Hatch and Lee hope to send a message to Congress and the American people that they are dedicated to getting federal spending under control.
"If we are fortunate enough to get this passed, this amendment is really going to put the screws to excessive spending," said Hatch. "We need this amendment, because Washington is not going to solve this crisis on it's own."
Lee, who ran a campaign full of promises to restrict federal spending, hopes that this amendment will put an end to what he sees as dismal fiscal irresponsibility.
In a press release, Lee said: "When it comes to spending, Congress has proven it cannot be trusted to live within its means or spend only what the federal government takes in. Our annual deficit approaching $1.7 trillion and national debt of almost $15 trillion are a significant threat to our economy, job growth, and future prosperity. Only a structural restraint on spending, like a constitutional amendment, will force Congress to make the tough decisions about our national priorities and prevent digging the country deeper in debt."
The measure was set to hit the Senate floor on March 17, but was barred from presentation at the last minute by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in hopes to garner the support of all 47 members of the Senate Republican Caucus. Because of the strategic delay, the amendment now has the official support of all Senate Republicans. Despite the unanimous Republican support, the amendment faces a difficult road to passage — Republicans will have to recruit at least 20 more votes from their Democratic colleagues in order to have two-thirds of the chamber on board, the amount required for passage in both the House and the Senate. It would then need to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures before it could officially become the 28th amendment to the Constitution.
Hatch, however, has been through this before. This amendment marks the fifth time that he has sponsored or co-sponsored a balanced budget amendment that has reached the senate floor. The most recent one he sponsored in 1997, was only one vote shy of passage. So while Hatch understands the uphill battle this amendment faces in the Senate, he is confident that he and his fellow cosponsors have a decent shot at pushing this through.
"The Founding Fathers made the Constitution very difficult to amend, and with good reason. We don't want the Constitution to be able to be amended willy-nilly helter-skelter," explained Hatch. "But with a bill like ours, that has the support of all the Senate Republicans, we hope that we can get some Democrats to vote with us. This is important stuff, everyone realizes that."
Hatch explained that amendments like this one usually attract some Democratic dissenters — in fact, he pointed out that in 1997, then-senator, now Vice President Joe Biden from Delaware voted for his amendment. Hatch explained that Democrats should be attracted to this measure, as it will free them from being beholden to personal-injury lawyers and unions.
"It would save Democrats a lot of grief if they could turn down these big spending groups by saying that they can't give them as much money because of the balanced budget amendment," said Hatch.
Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett has been openly critical of late of the balanced budget amendment, calling them "dangerous."
Bennett recently told the Deseret News: "I voted for balanced budget amendments in the past, but the wording of the amendment is the most important thing. If worded improperly, a balanced budget amendment can be a source of great economic mischief."
He went on to say that amendments like this can potentially put Congress and the Federal Reserve in an 'economic straight-jacket,' something he feels could be troubling down the road.
Hatch, who first explained that he and Bennett have been friends for a very long time, says he is confident that if Bennett were still in office, he would be voting for the amendment along with his fellow conservatives.
"If he [Senator Bennett] were here with me, I think he would vote for this amendment," said Hatch. "He may not like the idea of an 'economic straight-jacket,' but considering the reality that if we stay the current course, our country will be spending over 90 percent of our gross national product, I think he would vote for it."
He explained that under the Obama administration, federal spending levels have reached over 25 percent of the national economy.
The amendment would cap federal spending at 18 percent GDP. Exceptions to this restriction could only be made in times of war or national emergency, so long as two-thirds of both houses of Congress agree to waive the limits.
Hatch explains that the specific limitations in the amendment are to ensure that excessive spending cannot happen.
"The current administration absolutely refuses to make the necessary cuts. The responsible way to cut spending is through a balanced budget amendment," he said. "Some might think a statute is good enough, but a statute is only as good as the Congress that passes it. Democrats have kept themselves in power by spending us into the ground, and without a balanced budget amendment, they will continue to do so."
Currently there is no set timeline for when the amendment will be voted on, but in the meantime Hatch and Lee will have to work tirelessly to convince their friends across the aisle this amendment is what our country needs right now.
"Runaway spending has pushed spending to dangerous limits," said Hatch. "Families across America have had to tighten their belts, it's time Congress does, too."